Istanbul Passage

images-3Istanbul Passage
by Joseph Kanon
2012/ 401 pages
Rating: 7.5

I don’t *usually* read spy-novels but I’ve read enough to know a good one when I see it.  Kanon’s latest is one of these.

Set in Istanbul circa 1945 WWII has just come to a close and Turkey is torn between its loyalties and geographic position.   Jews must be evacuated before they are simply disposed of.  War criminals must be called to account.

Leon Bauer,  an executive with the Reynolds Tobacco firm,  and his wife,  Anna,  a completely disabled woman who worked with refugee exits,  are living in a situation of continued spying,  trades,  revenge and so on.  The US is calling its agents back home as the Cold War is heating up quickly as the Russians vie with the US for Germany’s secrets and criminals.

Tommy,  one of Leon’s friends who is more involved in diplomatic and espionage circles than Leon ,  is getting ready to leave Turkey and wants Leon to do one last favor (job)  – fetch a man with classified information who is being brought into the country.  He will be transported to the US after a few days in Istanbul.

But things go terribly wrong for Leon as he and his friend Mahai end up in a gun battle with Tommy in which Tommy is killed by Leon.   They were aiming at Alexis Junai,  the Bulgarian spy who is being brought through.   So Frank and others in the American Consulate hire Leon to find the killer.  Others die.  And the story continues as the Russians, the Turks,  and the Americans want Alexis or something else.

There are some very thoughtful moments in the book –   how should war criminals and information holders be handled – what about a mass murderer who wants to defect to the US?  For whom do you risk your life,  when is a lie not a lie,  and of course,  how to have an affair with a friend’s wife,    some “thinking reader” stuff.

The book started slow for me as I tried to keep the characters and their alliances in order in my mind but it picked up as it went along. The pace is good throughout,  steadily building to it’s culmination.   I very much enjoyed the later seriously page-turning sections with the high action thriller.

I love Istanbul – I’ve read Pamuk and Goodwin and some histories.    Jason Goodwin (The Janissaries) has a review of Kanon’s book at the NY Times which pretty well covers it and it’s not an entirely positive review.  (I do recommend Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree).   Tom Nolan has a better one at the Wall Street Journal. 

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