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Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon

Published by Atria Books on May 29, 2012

Set in 1945, Istanbul Passage tells an absorbing story that builds suspense like a Hitchcock movie. The novel rests upon a storyline that was a favorite of Hitchcock's: the (relatively) innocent man caught up in an intrigue he did not anticipate, forced to use his wits to avoid arrest or death. As is often the case in spy novels, themes of betrayal and moral ambiguity in a changing world pervade Istanbul Passage. The temptation and motivation to betray touches every important character.

Leon Bauer (American) is married to Anna (German) who is bedridden with a mysterious ailment. Leon works for R.J. Reynolds in Istanbul but does a bit of spying for Tommy King (Office of War Information) on the side. Tommy is pulling out of the city, leaving Leon to take delivery of a post-war defector named Alexei (Romanian) who is smuggled into Turkey by boat. The handover does not go smoothly. Hours later, in an early plot twist, Leon discovers that people he trusted are not on his side.

Leon learns Alexei's true identity from Mihai, a Mossad agent who believes Alexei to be a butcher, a killer of Jews (an accusation that Alexei denies). Mihai, the only person Leon trusts, refuses to help Alexei. In fact, he argues that it is no longer ethical for Leon to help Alexei gain his freedom. Leon thus confronts a dilemma. Alexei might be evil, but there are degrees of evil, and Alexei's role in the war is unclear. Alexei may be able to provide valuable Russian military intelligence to the Americans. Is it better to hand Alexei over to the Russians so that he can be executed (which might seem a just punishment for his alleged actions during the war) or to give him a pass for his wartime behavior in exchange for the information he claims to possess? Leon stands uncomfortably in the middle of this Hobson's choice, a position that becomes even less comfortable when the Turkish secret police take an interest in Leon's involvement with Alexei. Compounding Leon's problems is a mole whose identity is not revealed until the novel's end.

The revelation of the mole's identity is mildly surprising thanks to deft misdirection. Leon's moment of truth is a highlight in a book filled with scenes that make an impact.  Despite the moderately complex plot that brings together a number of carefully drawn characters, Joseph Kanon maintains a deliberate and gradually escalating pace.

Istanbul Passage raises fascinating ethical issues. When Mihai argues that the actions of people struggling for survival can't be judged by others who weren't in their shoes, he fails to understand that the same logic might apply to his judgment of Alexei. How should the reader view Alexei? He seems unremorsefully selfish yet he is capable of self-sacrifice. He is a Romanian who allied with Germany when Germany seemed to be prevailing, then switched his allegiance to Russia, and now seeks an alliance with the Americans. Other Romanians see him as a traitor, Mihai considers him a war criminal, but in the end, Alexei may simply be a man who tried to stay alive.

At the same time, how should the reader view Leon? As a devoted husband, he wants to help his wife but lacks the funds to do so. As a man who is attracted to women, he finds it difficult to resist advances. Leon is probably the most morally stalwart character in the book but he is no stranger to temptation. He wants to do the right thing but in the end he comes to understand that there is no right thing. And since nothing he can do will change the past, the question that confounds him is how to behave in the present.

Kanon manages to generate excitement without endless explosions and car chases. Action scenes are rare but riveting. Kanon writes dialog that is both realistic and smart. His characters are artfully constructed. Leon, of course, is the most fully developed. The reader is privy to his disjointed thoughts, often triggered by something he hears or sees but disconnected from his present environment. Strong characterizations combined with suspense, emotional intensity and ethical ambiguity make Istanbul Passage a standout spy novel.


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