Share this article

print logo

‘Istanbul Passage' a spy novel reminiscent of Greene, Pamuk

"Istanbul Passage" takes place in that perennial city of intrigue on the cusp of Europe and Asia. It was founded as Byzantium in 660 B.C.; renamed Constantinople in 330 A.D. and Turkish authorities retitled it Istanbul in the 1930s.

"Passage" by Joseph Kanon is a first-rate spy novel whose layers of deception remind me of Graham Greene's 1939 novel, "The Confidential Agent" as well as Orhan Pamuk's work, "The Museum of Innocence."

Why? Compare two brief passages from Greene and Kanon and notice their similarity of taut expression laced with fear.

First, here is how Greene begins "The Confidential Agent": "The gulls swept over Dover. They sailed out like flakes of the fog, and tacked back toward the hidden town, while the siren mourned them; other ships replied, a whole wake lifted up their voices – for whose death?"

Now, an example of Kanon's writing on the night of the killing of Tommy King, and American operative in "Istanbul Passage": "Outside the village the night was black, only a few yellow windows visible through the cypresses and umbrella pines. On the Bosphorus a passing freighter's light reflected on the water, then were swallowed up again."

Kanon measures up as a successor to Greene as a fine writer of what Greene called "entertainments." If anything, his complication of plot and character exceed Greene's interest in density of presentation.

What about Kanon and Pamuk's similarities? In 2009, I wrote about Pamuk's achievement of populating a world of characters in his Istanbul adventure, "The Museum of Innocence." I noted that, "Istanbul is pinned like a butterfly, a city with an ambergris quality, a fixative that combines Muslim prescriptivism and new world sin which is at the understanding heart of ‘The Museum of Innocence.'"

Kanon's perception of the city is not unlike Pamuk's. The author of "Passage" is an experienced hand at local settings having earlier written "The Good German", (made into a film with George Clooney and Cate Blanchette).

Now to the novel itself: The time is 1945. Spies for the Allies and the Axis are working to wrap up intelligence operations that are "on the boil" before leaving Istanbul to the decay that scarred many European cities in the post-war years.

This is where "Passage" begins: It's the story of an American businessman and expatriate, Leon Bauer, who lives in Istanbul during and after World War II. He works for the tobacco giant, R. J. Reynolds, and does the odd job for American intelligence in his spare time. His wife, Anna, a German Jew, is an invalid in a clinic there.

At this time Istanbul was a neutral capital on the Bosphorus. Espionage was on every restaurant's bill of fare, as the city was a natural listening post for Ally and Axis banter. Valuable wartime information in clubs and restaurants was traded there. Waiters got tips more for what they heard than what they did. The city's eating places were fictional equivalents of Rick's Café Américain in "Casablanca."

Istanbul was a spy's paradise until the war ended and the agents went home. When that happened, the city pulled up its dirty skirts and got ready to deal with the same grim privations that every other major city in Europe suffered after the war.

Trading secrets is a side-line for Bauer, the thrill of something exciting that gives spark to an otherwise dull life. If the truth were told, Bauer has enjoyed his foray into the spy trade and is uncertain about his future role in what has become a substitute for living a regular life. He is also vexed that he hasn't been given more credit for his work by Tommy King, his supervisor.

It is at this point that Tommy, an intelligence operative for the U. S. looking for a bigger job in Washington, gives Leon one last routine job: except that it isn't routine.

Tommy sends Bauer in the dead of night to a wharf. His purpose: to pick up a Romanian named Alexei, a murderer with information which both the Russians and Americans want. Among other crimes, Alexei earlier helped massacre a large number of Jews.

Secretly, Tommy waits to kill Bauer in the darkness of the wharf. Why? We don't know. Is Tommy a double or a triple agent? Instead, Bauer has luck on his side and kills Tommy in a shootout in the dark – without knowing whom he has killed.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Frank Bishop, Tommy's superior in U. S. intelligence, doesn't know that Bauer has killed him. He nominates Bauer to take Tommy's post and to investigate the murder.

Murky becomes murkier. The Turkish secret police, the Emniyet, are interested in Bauer and Alexei, the Romanian. At an international soiree, Bauer meets a Russian agent named Ivan Melnikov, a man with "a hard face, lived-in, knowing eyes." Melnikov offers Bauer a deal: deliver the Romanian to him or be killed. Bauer pretends he doesn't know of the Romanian's whereabouts, even though he has provided him a safe place as a prelude to moving him out of the country expeditiously.

"Murkiest" develops when Frank Bishop is killed at his desk in the ?U.S. Consulate in Istanbul. The crime takes place at about the same time that Bauer is ransacking Tommy's desk for clues just down the hall. All this activity ensues after Bauer has spent the previous day in the arms of Bishop's wife, Mary, who has taken an instant, rather unbelievable liking to him.

I suppose things like this happen when people are lonely.

As with most thrillers, there is the required sex scene. Sex is short hand for "realism" in a world filled with moral compromise. It may be that Graham Greene was better at showing ethical ambivalence in novels such as "The Human Factor", "The Confidential Agent" and "The Quiet American."

That said, "Istanbul Passage" with its layered plot, superior dialogue and period perfect setting is a fine read and worthy competitor to Greene's best work.

Michael D. Langan is a former Treasury Department Official and a former headmaster of Nardin Academy.


Istanbu Passage
By Joseph Kanon
406 pages, $26