Back to previous page

Book World: ‘Istanbul Passage,’ by Joseph Kanon, is a complex spy world

By ,

As a setting for crime fiction, Istanbul offers a peerless set of ingredients: exotic beauty, a long and complex history, a charged location where Europe and Asia dissolve into each other. Also, thanks to its neutrality, the city became a crossroads of espionage during World War II. British writers such as Eric Ambler (“Journey Into Fear”) and Graham Greene (“Stamboul Train”) have shrewdly exploited these features. In his new thriller, “Istanbul Passage,” the American writer Joseph Kanon joins their company.

The action takes place in late 1945, with the war over and the city reverting to normal even as old habits die hard. Leon Bauer, an American businessman, dabbled in cloak-and-dagger stuff during the war, and his handlers have persuaded him to take on one last job: Help a Romanian refugee into the city and then out again when safe transportation can be arranged. Late at night, Bauer slips down to the Bosporus, as directed, where a boat lands the fugitive. Shots are fired. Bauer shoots back and scores a hit. After stashing the newcomer in a temporary safe house, Bauer goes to work as usual the next day. Only then does he learn whom he shot — and killed: Tommy, the American consulate officer who gave him the assignment. This double-cross overshadows the rest of the novel.

Bauer plays dumb about the killing, and not just because he has no desire to implicate himself; he also wants to find out why Tommy set him up. In the meantime, Bauer has two helpless people on his hands. The fugitive, Alexei, must be moved to an even safer place because Tommy may have had an accomplice. And Bauer continues to visit his wife, who was so traumatized by the horrid failure of her biggest effort to save Jews during the war that — now mute and unresponsive — she is institutionalized. As if Bauer’s life weren’t already complicated enough, he finds himself drawn to the wife of a diplomat.

Almost every scene in the novel draws on the colors of Istanbul. Kanon can convey a visual impression of the city in a pithy phrase — “across the [Golden] Horn, the pincushion of minarets” — or take his time to evoke the mood of its residents: “In Istanbul’s dream of itself it was always summer, ladies eating sherbets in garden pavilions, caiques floating by. The city shivered through winters with braziers and sweaters, somehow surprised that it had turned cold at all.”

Kanon’s best move is to establish a contrast between Alexei and Bauer. The more we find out about Alexei, the less we like him: He seems to have at least fought with the Germans and may be guilty of worse. But the more odious Alexei becomes, the more we admire Bauer for sticking with him, for risking his life to save Alexei because he gave his word that he would and because Alexei has no one else to turn to. Bauer’s quixotic nature suggests that he would be well played by an actor like Humphrey Bogart, and indeed some of the dialogue in “Istanbul Passage” might be at home in “Casablanca.”

But occasionally I grew impatient with Kanon’s elliptical, participle-heavy style. Here, for example, is a lavish party as witnessed by Bauer and his lover: “Everyone charming then in their new eyes, the room dancing with light. Maybe they simply hadn’t been aware of it, the quiet introductions, the plotting, any of it. Just the sound of dresses swishing, voices spilling out, lapping at the garden.”

But that’s a quirk well worth putting up with for what “Istanbul Passage” offers: access to the compromised milieu of a vivid metropolis in its first postwar winter, where everyone is trying to keep his balance amid bad choices.

Drabelle is Book World’s mysteries editor.

ISTANBUL PASSAGE By Joseph Kanon Atria. 404 pp. $26

© The Washington Post Company