It’s hard to write a credible historical spy thriller. You have to get the history right while fashioning a narrative that will keep the reader turning the page. Writing a literary historical spy thriller is even harder: you need to balance believable characters, well-crafted prose, and a consideration of larger themes while maintaining suspense.
Joseph Kanon achieves that balance in his latest novel, Istanbul Passage, which should be regarded as a tour de force for the genre. It’s no surprise that Kanon’s fiction is compared to that of John le Carré and Graham Greene—he tackles the same moral ambiguities that surface in the world of espionage.
Kanon sets his story in Istanbul just after the close of World War II. Turkey stayed on the sidelines for most of the war (entering on the side of the Allies only after it was clear that they would prevail) along with the other countries that remained neutral: Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland.
A few novelists have explored the tensions and ambiguity involved in neutrality: C.J. Sansom looked at life in Franco’s wartime Spain in Winter in Madrid, and Robert Wilson wrote two well-received mysteries set in Portugal during the war, A Small Death in Lisbon and The Company of Strangers .
Istanbul Passage begins in the early days of the Cold War. The novel’s protagonist, Leon Bauer, is a businessman working for the R.J. Reynolds Company who has been helping American intelligence on the side (“An errand boy when I happened to be going to the right place”) and discovers not only does he find clandestine work exciting, but also that he’s good at it. When Bauer takes delivery of a Romanian defector and things go terribly wrong, he finds himself drawn deeper into the struggle between Soviet and American intelligence.
Kanon excels in his portraits of the people in the novel—the portly, amoral document forger; the well-connected Turkish socialite who began life in a harem; the bored diplomatic wives; the competing Soviet and American agents; the Mossad operative who must deal with local corruption, Western indifference, and British hostility. The novel brilliantly evokes the Expat world of post-war Istanbul—the foreign diplomats and businessmen who have created their own closed society. Kanon also weaves into the plot the efforts of Mossad agents to help Eastern European Jews evade a Royal Navy blockade and make their way to Palestine. And then there is the Turkish elite, caught between the two emerging powers, and trying to decide which side to land on.
Kanon touches upon some of the themes of accountability and expediency that surfaced in his 2001 bestseller, The Good German. Where should American intelligence have drawn the line when working with those who were part of the Nazi war-machine? What was the morality of making use of those in the Cold War struggle who could be tried on war crimes charges? (We know the answer in Europe: the Allies made use of the Gehlen organization despite its Nazi past). Should the “enemy of my enemy” be enough to justify making alliances?
My only (minor) quibble with Kanon’s book is that I kept waiting for Kim Philby, the infamous mole, to appear, and he didn’t. In September 1945, Konstantin Volkov, the deputy head of the NKVD in Turkey, walked into the British Consulate in Istanbul intent on defecting. He offered to expose Soviet agents in Turkey and Britain. Cold War history might have been different if Philby, the head of MI6’s Russian Desk at the time and a Soviet agent, hadn’t been the official tasked with handling the defection. Philby delayed his arrival in Istanbul long enough for word of Volkov’s planned escape to reach Moscow Center; a heavily-bandaged Volkov was then seen being hustled board an airplane bound for Russia. Had Volkov made it to London he could have exposed the penetration of the British Foreign Office and MI-6 (the Maclean-Burgess-Philby ring).
Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
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