Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Istanbul Passage - Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon is like Alan Furst, one of the US writers of grown-up wartime espionage novels. I like them greatly but they don't seem to do so well in the UK market. They definitely deserve to be better known. Perhaps the problem is that they are so similar in style in subject. Perhaps together they achieve bestseller status on this side of the Atlantic.

It will surprise no one to learn that this, Kanon's sixth novel (the immediate precursor to Leaving Berlin, which I reviewed here) is set in Istanbul. It is 1945 and loyalties are in a state of flux. Russia, so recently a US ally, is now the enemy, more so than Germany at any rate. Turkey is seeking a relationship with both superpowers, the surviving Jews are trying to get to Palestine, and the Balkans are by and large up for grabs. Some Balkan states sided with the Nazis, others opposed. Romania tried to out-Nazi the Nazis, the only occupied country to set up its own concentration camps. It is a Romanian Nazi, Alexei, who is passing through Istanbul on his way to the US.

Leon Bauer, a US tobacco executive who dabbles in espionage, is given the job of picking Alexei up and passing him up the line. The pick up is by the Bosporus, late at night. Someone attacks. Leon shoots back - and kills the guy who told him to collect Alexei. This is a great start to a novel. What happens now? Well for starters Leon is put in charge of the investigation. At the reception after the funeral he meets an embassy wife (the embassy being in the capital, Ankara, not Istanbul which only has a consulate) and the begin a guilty affair.

Leon's wife, Anna, is in a nursing home. She has not communicated or reacted since a boatload of her fellow Jews which she had arranged was sunk. Leon's friend Mihai, who was with him at the pick up, is a Romanian Jew, the last person on earth willing to help him get Alexei out of the country.
This is how spy novels should be - deal and counter-deal, shifting priorities, nuanced compromises. There is action but not too much. Yet Kanon can keep our attention for four hundred pages by just piling the pressure onto Leon. The final twist is excellent, the setting - Galata Bridge, joining Europe and Asia - just brilliant. Nothing is as it seems. Everybody is betraying somebody.

Kanon's style takes some getting used to - short, ungrammatical sentences - and it works best in the high-tension passages. One section, a party in the residence of the former harem girl Lily, goes on far too long. It's an important passage, even crucial, but Kanon really needed to divide it up. How long does he think the reader is going to read in one go? I tend to read in half-hour bursts. Three sessions to read one episode (he doesn't do chapters) is frankly two too many. These are minor quibbles though. The characterisation is very good, the plot brilliant, and the research - as ever - faultless.

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