Eyes Everywhere 'Istanbul Passage,' A Novel by Joseph Kanon

Image By JASON GOODWIN - NYT - Joseph Kanon is a specialist in fin de guerre thrillers, whose previous novels set in 1945-46 include “Alibi,” “Los Alamos,” “The Good German” and “Stardust.” The period is well chosen: dark secrets are finally coming to the surface, and people are being called to account for what the war has made them. For readers, it’s immediately recognizable territory: the aftermath of the conflict, shabby, filmic. Now, in “Istanbul Passage,” Kanon compounds the fraught postwar mood with a location to match.

Istanbul is, at the best of times, a city divided. Weird currents drag along the chasm of the Bosporus, where Europe and Asia almost meet, and the Black Sea tips into the Mediterranean. Levantine are the mosques and bazaars of Istanbul, and Byzantine its steep, winding streets; but its bars and trams are Balkan, almost Mitteleuropäisch. As the capital of empires Roman, Greek and Muslim, Istanbul stands uneasily between its imperial past and its future as a provincial giant in a secular Turkey.

The war has left Kanon’s Istanbul physically unscathed, but as neutral territory between the warring powers it has come to function as an entrepôt of rumor and intelligence. In this city everyone watches everyone else: everyone has secrets, contacts, shadows. The big European hotels — the Park, the Pera Palas — have played host to all the spooks and agents of the hostile forces. “Goddam three-ring circus,” one of them recalls in the bar of the Park Hotel. “Everybody. Same room. Packy Macfarland over there and that Kraut who kept pretending he was in the navy right next to him. Navy. And the Jap, Tashima, remember him.” Even the waiter gathers information for those willing to pay him.

Leon Bauer, an American tobacco merchant and sometime spy, knows this all too well. His wife, Anna, once worked for an organization that funneled Jewish refugees through Istanbul and on to Palestine, by legal, then illegal means. Her work became a cover for Leon’s own: “It was the Jewish wife working for Mossad who needed watching, not her American husband.” But Anna doesn’t have to glance over her shoulder anymore: she has escaped the secrecy and lies by succumbing to a nervous collapse, retreating into a catatonic state. Leon doggedly visits her in a clinic, hoping that one day his voice will bring her back. Her condition anchors him to Istanbul.

But now that the wartime organization is being wound down and his boss, Tommy, is going back to Washington, there’s a final job he wants Leon to do. Sufficiently routine, with no questions asked, and no fingerprints leading back to Tommy. It’s this that sends Leon down to a quay on a dark night to collect a man with classified knowledge of Soviet arrangements. He is to be smuggled through Istanbul, parked there for a day or two until a seat on a plane to America comes free. To help him, Leon calls on his old friend Mihai, a Romanian Jew running the refugee program Anna worked for. Mihai recognizes the defector as a member of the notorious Romanian Iron Guard, directly implicated in the massacre of Jews in an abattoir at Straulesti. Shots ring out; a man dies.

With this neat twist, Kanon pulls us into his noir world, where men’s motives may be as shabby as the dilapidated city that surrounds them, and no one is quite all he seems. Leon hides Alexei, the defector, in a safe house but soon comes to realize that the chain to Washington is broken and Alexei’s fate is in his hands. The Russians are offering a reward for his recapture. The Turkish authorities are drawn in, including an impeccable but sinister agent of Emniyet, the Turkish secret police. Meanwhile there is consternation at the United States Consulate as first Tommy, then his boss from Ankara turn up dead.

Leon gets lessons in spycraft from Alexei as they slip from one safe house to the next; his understanding of the Romanian defector, considered a butcher by his friend Mihai, deepens as the story progresses. Alexei is ruthless, experienced and cynical; yet he is not incapable of human kindness. Leon refuses to act as his judge or executioner, in spite of the net closing around them as Russian, American and Turkish agents trade information and counterinformation. Alexei, by the end, has emerged as a sort of hero himself.

Kanon does all this pretty well. There are not many dramas in his plotting, just accidents and the slow tightening of the screws. Plans have to be changed. Consequences have to be recalibrated. Between his adversaries and his friends, Leon has to move one step ahead; but he’s an extremely cool customer. He knows a dodge, an alleyway, a backstairs. He knows his way around Istanbul. He speaks the language.

“Istanbul Passage” is anchored convincingly to locations around the shores of the Bosporus: a clinic in Bebek, a flat in Laleli, a party in Kanlica. Kanon has gotten to know the city well, and he uses its history to good effect — the Ottoman years, the Byzantine sights, the influx of Germans in the 1930s, the exodus of Greeks. There are echoes, too, of Istanbul’s long imperial past as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, not least in beautiful Lily, a worldly widow who first came to the city as a Circassian slave in the sultan’s harem. Now she gives society parties at her waterfront villa. “I didn’t think anybody was this rich anymore,” one of her guests remarks.

Some readers may find that Kanon’s thriller-ish style takes some getting used to, especially his telegrammatic dialogue reduced. To such. Staccato bursts that. It risks becoming. Unintelligible. Occasionally tension drains as conversations drag and too many meetings are arranged — even with the hapless Anna, who lies comatose in bed while Leon rambles. But “Istanbul Passage” is enlivened by intelligent plotting and its vivid evocation of the city itself, a setting rich in centuries of intrigue.

Jason Goodwin is the author of the Investigator Yashim series of Istanbul mysteries. His most recent novel is “An Evil Eye.”
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07