Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon

Author Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage is a fine thriller, full of the intrigue of espionage and the attendant moral quandaries that the best writers in the field, Greene, Ambler, and Le Carre, do so well. Set in post-WWII Istanbul, the Second World War has only recently ended, but already the intrigues of the Cold War have commenced. Germany and Eastern Europe have unearthed not only Jewish refugees hoping for a secure future by passing to Palestine (then a British protectorate), but also war criminals, some of whom know things valuable to the U.S., the Soviets, and maybe even the Turks, who are caught between the two new superpowers.

The central character is an expatriate American businessman turned sometime spy. Leon Bauer is mostly a courier, but then on “one last mission” things go astray. Far astray. Now Leon, who speaks Turkish and knows his way around the famed city, must use wits and guile that he’d never had to use before to try to turn things toward . . . what? Leon isn’t just presented with issues of tactics, but some troubling moral questions, too. Whom is he helping? Who’s trying to get him? Why should he help a likely war criminal? Besides the atmospherics of Istanbul and Ottoman intrigue, Kanon keeps his readers wondering about what will happen next, whom to trust not to trust, and what Leon can do to preserve some sense of moral rectitude that we know that he seeks. 

#JLF 2013 speaker Kanon whom I heard in Durbar Hall. Thanks again, JLF!
I was a little reluctant about this book because I’d seen a film version of this book, The Good German which didn’t work for me (or many other viewers either, it seems). But while the film didn’t work for a variety of reasons, I know now how the book could. Kanon has staked out an era (the immediate post-war) that is fertile for intrigue and moral quandaries, much as Le Carre did with the Cold War and Alan Furst (with less moral tension) in the immediate pre-war and early war period. He’s worth another read.

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