250 of 262 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "What do you do when there's no right thing to do." A question that turns out to thrill.
A brilliant editor told me that the best time to start reporting a big story is after everyone else is finished. The parade of media leaves town, and the people you want to talk to have plenty of time. With nothing much at stake, you get the real story.
I'm guessing that was one of the attractions of Istanbul, circa late 1945, for Joseph Kanon. The war was...
Published 18 months ago by Jesse Kornbluth
160 of 173 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Istanbul a magnet for refugees and spies: a tale of espionage"
Joseph Kanon is the author of six novels including, Los Alamos, which won the Edgar Award for best first novel; The Good German, which was made into a film starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett; The Prodigal Spy and Alibi, which earned Kanon the Hammett Award of the International Association of Crime Writers;and Istanbul Passage, his latest novel. Before becoming a...
Published 18 months ago by Max Read
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250 of 262 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "What do you do when there's no right thing to do." A question that turns out to thrill.,
This review is from: Istanbul Passage: A Novel (Hardcover)A brilliant editor told me that the best time to start reporting a big story is after everyone else is finished. The parade of media leaves town, and the people you want to talk to have plenty of time. With nothing much at stake, you get the real story.
I'm guessing that was one of the attractions of Istanbul, circa late 1945, for Joseph Kanon. The war was over, the big league spies had departed, and the only sustained action was the effort to smuggle European Jews into Palestine. A visitor could almost buy the fantasy: "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."
"Istanbul Passage" is billed as a thriller, in the way that the novels of Graham Greene and Alan Furst are thrillers. That is, there are guns, and they are used. But the book is also about values and codes and honor, the kind of big questions that get asked in great movies like "Casablanca" and aren't asked nearly enough in contemporary stories.
For Leon Bauer, an American vaguely involved in the tobacco trade but also an occasional tool of the American consulate's less diplomatic activities, it comes down to this: "What do you do when there's no right thing to do. Just the wrong thing. Either way."
That question makes the book's title a pun. The "passage" isn't just about Jews or, more urgently, a former Nazi collaborator who is being smuggled through Istanbul on his way to a debriefing in Washington. It's equally about Leon Bauer's moral passage. As in: You give your word to perform a service. Along the way, you learn a few things, none of them savory. Do you walk? Is your word your bond? Or do you think this-is-how-the-world-is and don't trouble yourself with doubt?
Such questions make for a lot of talk. Exceptional talk: witty, worried, tart, original, credible. Talk, one way, with a wife who has witnessed a great tragedy and tumbled into a silence so profound no one thinks she'll ever snap out of it. Talk with his consulate contact. Talk with a diplomat's wife, who provides a smart ear and the book's romance. (There is a prostitute in these pages, but her therapy involves less chat.) And, especially juicy, talk with one of the greatest hostesses in modern fiction.
And then there is action, all of it brisk. With many twists and turns that I did not see coming. To say anything about them is to ruin it for you. But, obviously, people are Not Who They Seem to Be.
"It wasn't the money, there were always ways to get more money, but the end of things. Just like that. He shivered...."
"The end of things." How very...now. I shivered too.
160 of 173 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Istanbul a magnet for refugees and spies: a tale of espionage",
It was the end of World War II. The Americans and the Russians are vying for dominance in what will become known later as the "Cold War" an era of mistrust; the war is over, everyone is packing up to leave Istanbul. The American's clandestine operation was conducted from the American Consul. It was engaged in disrupting German war supply efforts through the guise of operatives in legitimate businesses like R.J. Reynolds, Commercial Corp and Western Electric. There were others too, humanitarians, passionate for the repatriation of the Jewish refugees with Palestine; clandestine operations that provided illegal passage for them through sea ports on the Bosporus. As the story opens, Leon Bauer and his friend Mihai are proceeding to the sea port for a clandestine pickup of a German. It was arranged by Leon's friend and sometime employer, Tommy, who worked at the American Consul. It was a simple job, pick the German up whisk him away to a safe place and protect him until he is transported out of Turkey by the Americans. That was the plan but not everyone saw the same ending. Leon intercepts the German at the landing; suddenly gun fire erupts, the fire is returned and a dead man is left by the road side above. This begins Leon's ever deepening involvement in uncovering a traitor, protecting the German, hiding from the Russians and avoiding the police and secret police as he struggles with a moral conflict where none of the solutions is a good one.
Kanon weaves a complex plot for his protagonist, Leon Bauer. There is intrigue, some mystery a moral dilemma and a touch of romance inside a love story. The characters are engaging and mysterious woven into the sights and sounds of post war Istanbul. The story is good; the writing has a few detractions however. Kanon chose to write using conversational dialog. The style is difficult to navigate, for unlike a real conversation there are no cues from gestures or facial expression. At times it was impossible to determine who was saying what or to properly hear the inflection; entire paragraphs needed to be reread carefully to digest the meaning - sometimes without success. The difficulty with the writing style also contributed to a decidedly confusing awareness of the evolving plot and an understanding of it as Leon solves the puzzles and leaves the reader still puzzled.
All in all I thought the novel was good but it would have been terrific if Kanon had simply narrated the work rather than engaging in conversation. Not all readers will have a problem with this style of writing but some will. I would suggest that if you are interested in reading this novel that you take advantage of Amazon's free look, reading some of it to see that you will be okay with the writing style before you buy.
I recommend the novel with the above reservations should you wish to add it to your reading list.
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars BEST SPY STORY SINCE EARLY LECARRE,
This review is from: Istanbul Passage: A Novel (Hardcover)Joseph Kanon's "Istanbul Passage" is a terrific book, 5 stars. It's filled with characters who will stay with you for a long time, an interesting story that slowly pulls you in and becomes more and more complex, excellently interwoven sub-plots that greatly enrich the main story, and tons and tons of atmosphere. And romance and sex.
It's in the early days of post-WWll and Leon, an American "businessman" is asked by his local Consulate boss to meet an unidentified man arriving late at night via fishing boat. And a simple pick-up is suddenly not so simple. Now there's a dead body, and the police are asking embarrassing questions. As is the national security agency, Emniyet. And there are the Russians. And before long you realize you are reading a winner.
Leon has his personal problems as well. His beloved wife is convalescing in a local clinic and has not been responsive for months. He secretly meets with Marina every Thursday afternoon, and then there's Kay, wife of his new boss.
Leon knows Istanbul, its history, landmarks and alleys. And he is very resourceful. So while he is not a full-time agent, much less a spy, he soon is engaged with a couple of them, and learns quickly. But what he is not prepared for are the choices, particularly when all the options are bad ones.
I have read a lot of spy fiction over the years and I haven't read anything better than "Istanbul Passage" since Le Carre's stuff in the early and mid 60's. Enjoy !
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Intrique & Great Heart.,
This review is from: Istanbul Passage: A Novel (Hardcover)There was a couple of references to Graham Greene, and the NYT Book Review threw in Le Carre & Orwell to boot. A trifecta I had to place a bet on. I read it. The hype lived up to the ink being splashed around.
I liked the Hitchcockian plot flavor of the normal man being placed in the arena of unconscionable players/in a deadly game of deception upon deception.
The setting is very realistic, as is the time frame. A perfect background upon which to cast the reader into the depths of rights & wrongs, where they meet in grey uncertainties & no-win scenarios. Then mix in, with these textures of grim realities: the torrid zones of lovers, the extermination camps, the fall-to-your-knees horrors of war, the gordian knots of deception, plus the humanity of the writer spinning this yarn; and you have a novel well-worth worth your time.
But back to the references to Greene and other authors; these authors have been in the very crucibles they tell of so knowingly about - and Joseph Kanon is one as well. There is no substitute for experience. It comes off the page and stops the reader cold, to savor the moment/suposedly imagined, but quite genuine. It pulls one aside to contemplate. To think. To ponder.
The Alexei character really drew me in. Though all the major characters are complex and finely drawn, it was this so-called bad guy, Alexie, that had me turning the pages. I say so-called bad guy, because war spawns many variations of itself. Whose to say, that even with the bad choices some made, there were worse choices, that they could or would not breach?
Great intrique & great heart.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Implausible,
This review is from: Istanbul Passage: A Novel (Hardcover)This novel has serious character development and plotting problems. The main character (Leon) spends the book repeatedly risking his life and career to save an ex-death camp guard turned Soviet defector (Alexei), with no apparent motivation for doing so after perhaps the first couple of twists. It's hard to care about the outcome when it seems like Leon could simply have come clean to his contacts in either the Turkish or American secret services about a third of the way through the book, washed his hands of the matter, and moved on with his life. I get that he is supposed to be a novice who is not cut out for the world of espionage, but his constant shock at minor and/or obvious revelations quickly becomes absurd (his stomach is forever "clenching" at, e.g., the fact that the Soviets will probably kill a defector who is returned to them, or that someone has a fake passport). I guess the reader is supposed to believe that he is motivated by some sort of strange respect or friendship with Alexei, coupled with an unwillingness to become like the "coldhearted" spies he sees around him, but it just doesn't work. The author also seems to be going for some kind of cosmic irony in the fact that Leon's wife is Jewish and they have significant ties to the effort to smuggle Jews to Palestine, while he is simultaneously helping an ex-"butcher" of Jews, but the effect is incoherence rather than interesting tension.
The plot suffers from that tell-tale sign of a second rate spy novel, the 20 pages at the end where 20 different twists and out-of-nowhere discoveries are foisted upon the reader in rapid succession, none of which have much grounding in the previous 380 pages of text. Even worse, about half come in the form of a monologue delivered by one character, the literary equivalent of a voiceover. No comparison to an Alan Furst or Le Carre novel where the plot threads are woven into the book from the beginning. If you want something with an "amateur" protagonist sucked into spycraft, Eric Ambler remains your best bet.
And just to pick nits, i find it hard to believe that local police would have been allowed to swarm over and search an American consulate, as happens in one major scene. I kept waiting for some higher authority on the American side to appear and start asking questions or something, but bizarrely, the US seems to have put its entire intelligence operation in Turkey in the hands of two people, and not to take any interest when they start getting killed other than to leave it to the Turks to sort out.
The writing is ok, but as others have noted the dialogue is confusing, and the sex scenes are cringe-worthy. There are also too many long disquisitions about the wonders of Istanbul and Turkish culture, the sort of thing you always get in novels where the author is trying to show off his knowledge of some particular setting rather than just let it come through in the characters and plot.
19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars LeCarre Lite,
This review is from: Istanbul Passage: A Novel (Hardcover)Joseph Kanon is being touted by national reviewers as the next Graham Greene or John LeCarre. Kanon spins a tale of moral choices, the choices of individuals intertwined with the choices of nations. But his prose and narrative style, while very contemporary, are not at the level of LeCarre.
The novel is set in the old decaying Ottoman seat of Istanbul in the late fall of 1945. Turkey remained neutral in World War Two with Russia sitting on one shoulder and Germany on the other, and the U.S. and Britain crawling everywhere, eyeing their enemies and quasi-allies on the party circuit of wartime Istanbul. Leon Bauer, an Istanbul tobacco buyer for an American company, does minor contract work for the nascent OSS, carrying sensitive material to Washington or escorting unknown Europeans to the states. He speaks both German and Turkish, talents drastically needed by the OSS. Bauer's wife, a Jew, fled Germany early and is a key player in the Underground Railroad funneling escaping Jews from Eastern Europe to Palestine, hence the Istanbul passage.
The U.S. is trying to figure out what to do with the OSS after the war, while the OSS officers are struggling to determine their roles, if any, in the post-war world. While the U.S. is a new and immediately powerful player on the world stage, grappling with its new role, the OSS officers, accustomed to their heady power during the war, are suddenly faced with an uncertain and possibly powerless future role. "What's the war department going to do with field officers? War's over. Tell that to the Russians." Nazi and Eastern European butchers are fleeing Europe, attempting to dump their pasts, offering their potential secrets of the Russian military and intelligence operations. "But that war was over. In the new one you brought out murderers and kept them safe. So they could tell you about other murderers." In this maelstrom, the naïve Bauer is buffeted by lies and deceit, as he is used as a mere pawn either for the personal gain or frontier justice of his OSS operator. The plot revolves around the arranged passage of a former Romanian officer, who worked with the Germans in routing Jews to the concentration camps, then later worked with the Russians.
The story explores the choices men and nations make in peacetime, carrying over the accepted moral choices of war. But with the war ended, are the same moral choices still justified. "What do you do when there's no right thing to do. Just the wrong thing. Either way." Kanon writes a compelling story deftly exploring Bauer's personal moral choices of casual infidelity then a guilt-ridden romance (explicit sex), in juxtaposition to his nation's moral choices, inconsistently accepting some, guiltily accepting others. For those of us who will miss the subtlety and complexity as well as the carefully crafted prose of LeCarre, Kanon is definitely a step above the rest of the genre. But his prose is a contemporary clipped prose, not only in his dialogues and soliloquies, but in his narrative as well, and the effect eventually destroys the flow of the prose and becomes irritating. That and his constant didactic explanations as if today's modern readers don't have the patience to dwell on the story line.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent but relentlessly dark,
This review is from: Istanbul Passage: A Novel (Paperback)This novel reminds me very much of LeCarre's "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold." It has a solid realistic feel to it, both in terms of the environment and the characters. His writing places you in Istanbul after the war, and the characters feel real because they are so highly developed.
However, be aware that this is far from an uplifting novel. It is relentlessly dark, with no happy resolutions to problems, minor or major. Even the main character's several romantic encounters have a dark, cold feel to them. It took me several months to finish this novel, highly unusual for me, simply because I never felt a drive to plunge back in. I knew that after reading a chapter I would go away feeling depressed at his dismal world. I forced myself to finish it.
Also know that it is quite complex, with few things handed to the reader on a platter. This is very much a thinking person's novel, not easy beach reading. The author leaves it to the reader to put together numerous crucial puzzle pieces, and the unfortunate part is that some of these 'solutions' are crucial to understanding the novel. Many times I just gave up trying to figure out what a line of cryptic dialog meant, and read on, hopeful that it would eventually become clear.
Finally, I disagree with those reviewers who consider this to be a fast-paced thriller. Not compared to the thrillers that I normally read! For me, this novel plodded along, with few and short truly exciting parts. It was mostly the main character slogging through a bunch of moral ambiguities.
In summary, if you appreciate intelligent writing, and if you love deep, believable characterization, this novel is for you. But if you are looking for a novel that you can read in a hammock with a beer, forget it. If you want a novel that will leave you feeling good, forget it. And if you want a white-knuckle page-ripping thriller, pass.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not up to Kanon standards,
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating story,Istanbul Passage: A Novelbeautifully, and I enjoyed it immensely. I like broad-based stories, especially ones with international intrigues, politics, espionage, culture and cuisine. Istanbul in the late 1940s captured the essence of that flavor with Western Europe and Eastern Europe gearing towards cold war, Arabism on the rise as Israel appears on the map. Joseph Kanon did a great job coming up with a story from this amazing setting, using a fascinating plot and masterful characters. The colorfulness of this story reminds me of Triple Agent, Double Cross. Overall, this is a well written story that is full of surprises right up to the last page, with enough suspense to keep the reader wondering what the next page would hold.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Terse, clipped writing style hampers readability,
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Istanbul Passage: A Novel by Joseph Kanon (Hardcover - May 29, 2012)