Review: Istanbul Passage – Joseph Kanon

My version: Paperback
Genre: Fiction, espionage
Simon & Schuster UK
First published: 2012
ISBN: 978-1-47113-505-7
Pages: 401

From the cover:
How do you do the right thing when there are only bad choices to be made?
A neutral city straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul survived the Second World War as a magnet for refugees and spies, trafficking in secrets and lies rather than soldiers. Expatriate American businessman Leon Bauer was drawn into this shadow world, doing undercover odd jobs and courier runs in support of the Allied war effort. Now he is given one last routine assignment.
But when the job goes fatally wrong – an exchange of gunfire, a body left in the street, and a potential war criminal on his hands – Leon is plunged into a nightmarish tangle of intrigue, shifting loyalties, and moral uncertainty.
Played out out against the bazaars, mosques and faded mansions of this knowing, ancient Ottoman city, Leon’s conflicted attempt to save one life leads to a desperate manhunt that ultimately threatens his own survival.

I must admit to being tremendously disappointed with this. I had heard lots of good things about Joseph Kanon and was looking forward to perhaps a long association with his spy books. Now, I’m not so sure I want to be.

There is a hell of a lot wrong with the book, wrong and missing. Wrong is what I say below and missing is a story to get your teeth into, one that hasn’t been done several times before and better.

For long passages (I can’t remember if it’s the whole book through though it probably is), he (Kanon) has no other way of indicating that someone is speaking (now) than “(Character name) said.” Even if there are just two in the conversation and you can clearly work it out for yourself that if one is speaking, then the other isn’t!

Then there’s the repeating the last part or part of the last thing the previous person has just said. Like your younger brother or sister used to do to irritate you. Here’s my version:
“I saw him in Istanbul.”
“In Istanbul?”
It’s just padding, as here. Once or twice, ok, but spread it out, OK? Use it to indicate, I dunno, maybe someone in a daze because they’re so shocked at hearing what the other person has just said. But all the way through, it’s padding out a thin idea. It makes the whole thing read like the person being spoken to (by answering like that), has forgotten everything up to the last persons last half a dozen words.

Other than that, if you can find the story below the thick layer of irritation. He has written some of the Americans like you read in some books the old colonial British India, the far east. Not homesick, more a sad reflection on how it used to be (for the ex-pats) before the current (native) population started running their own country.

The conundrum is just realpolitik. Leon and his wife are involved in getting Jews (‘from the camps’) out, and he ends up also smuggling Romanian Nazi out. Paid for by USA. Looking back, it’s a moral vacuum, though it is just Realpolitik. Shrug your shoulders and get on with it, or do something about it. Then, unless you’re going to do something more impressive with it than this, why have it in? There are no winners, only users and losers, we knew that. From umpteen other writers. Don’t really need it again. In Turkey.

Interestingly, as I thought, the only ones openly without morals/scruples, are the Turks. All the others don’t, but pretend they do. Because the Turks are open about it and let everyone know they are dishonest, they are in fact the only honest ones.

I suppose it is about espionage, because it involves (some) spies in Istanbul. But because the spying part is so small, you have to start thinking ‘ok, so what else is it he wants to say?’ Just that he’s been on holiday to Istanbul? Or what?
Must be something else. But I can’t see it.

You can buy Istanbul Passage from The Book Depository

Photo of Istanbul by Emre Gencer on Unsplash

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