In the bestselling tradition of espionage novels by John LeCarre and Alan Furst, Istanbul Passage brilliantly illustrates why Edgar Award–winning author Joseph Kanon has been hailed as "the heir apparent to Graham Greene" (The Boston Globe).
Istanbul survived the Second World War as a magnet for refugees and spies. Even expatriate American Leon Bauer was drawn into this shadow world, doing undercover odd jobs in support of the Allied war effort. Now as the espionage community begins to pack up and an apprehensive city prepares for the grim realities of postwar life, Leon 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 trapped in a tangle of shifting loyalties and moral uncertainty.
Played out against the bazaars and mosques and faded mansions of this knowing, ancient Ottoman city, Istanbul Passage is the unforgettable story of a man swept up in the dawn of the Cold War, of an unexpected love affair, and of a city as deceptive as the calm surface waters of the Bosphorus that divides it.
THE FIRST ATTEMPT HAD to be called off. It had taken days to arrange the boat and the safe house and then, just a few hours before the pickup, the wind started, a poyraz, howling down from the northeast, scooping up water as it swept across the Black Sea. The Bosphorus waves, usually no higher than boat wakes by the time they reached the shuttered yalis along the shore, now churned and smashed against the landing docks. From the quay, Leon could barely make out the Asian side, strings of faint lights hidden behind a scrim of driving rain. Who would risk it? Even the workhorse ferries would be thrown off schedule, never mind a bribed fishing boat. He imagined the fisherman calculating his chances: a violent sea, sightless, hoping the sudden shape forty meters away wasn’t a lumbering freighter, impossible to dodge. Or another day safe in port, securing ropes and drinking plum brandy by the cast-iron stove. Who could blame him? Only a fool went to sea in a storm. The passenger could wait. Days of planning. Called by the weather.
“How much longer?” Mihai said, pulling his coat tighter.
They were parked just below Rumeli Hisari, watching the moored boats tossing, pulling against their ties.
“Give it another half hour. If he’s late and I’m not here—”
“He’s not late,” Mihai said, dismissive. He glanced over. “He’s that important?”
“I don’t know. I’m just the delivery boy.”
“It’s freezing,” Mihai said, turning on the motor. “This time of year.”
Leon smiled. In Istanbul’s dream of itself it was always summer, ladies eating sherbets in garden pavilions, caïques floating by. The city shivered through winters with braziers and sweaters, somehow surprised that it had turned cold at all.
Mihai ran the heater for a few minutes then switched it off, burrowing, turtlelike, into his coat. “So come with me but no questions.”
Leon rubbed his hand across the window condensation, clearing it. “There’s no risk to you.”
“Wonderful. Something new. You couldn’t do this yourself?”
“He’s coming out of Constancia. For all I know, he only speaks Romanian. Then what? Sign language? But you—”
Mihai waved this off. “He’ll be German. One of your new friends.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
“It’s a small favor. I’ll get it back.”
He lit a cigarette, so that for a second Leon could see his grizzled face and the wiry salt-and-pepper hair on his head. Now more salt than pepper. When they had met, it had been dark and wavy, styled like the Bucharest dandy he’d once been, known in all the cafés on the Calea Victoriei.
“Besides, to see the rats leaving—” he said, brooding. “They wouldn’t let us out. Now look at them.”
“You did what you could.” A Palestinian passport, free to come and go in Bucharest, to beg for funds, leasing creaky boats, a last lifeline, until that was taken away too.
Mihai drew on the cigarette, staring at the water running down the windshield. “So how is it with you?” he said finally. “You look tired.”
Leon shrugged, not answering.
“Why are you doing this?” Mihai turned to face him. “The war’s over.”
“Yes? Nobody told me.”
“No, they want to start another one.”
“Nobody I know.”
“Be careful you don’t get to like it. You start enjoying it—” His voice trailed off, rough with smoke, the accent still Balkan, even now. “Then it’s not about anything anymore. A habit. Like these,” he said, holding out his cigarette. “You get a taste for it.”
Leon looked at him. “And you?”
“Nothing changes for us. We’re still saving Jews.” He made a wry face. “Now from our friends. No visas for Palestine. Where should they go, Poland? And I’m helping you talk to a Nazi. A wonderful world.”
“Why a Nazi?”
“Why all this? Some poor refugee? No, someone who knows the Russians, I think. And who knows better?”
“It doesn’t matter to you? What you deliver?”
Leon looked away, then down at his watch. “Well, he’s not coming tonight. Whoever he is. I’d better call. Make sure. There’s a café.”
Mihai leaned forward to start the car again. “I’ll pull around.”
“No, stay here. I don’t want the car—”
“I see. You run across the road in the rain. Get wet. Then you run back. Again, wet. To a waiting car. That will be less suspicious. If anyone is watching.” He put the car in gear.
“It’s your car,” Leon said. “That’s all.”
“You think they haven’t seen it by now?”
“Have they? You’d know,” he said, a question.
“Always assume yes.” He made a turn across the road, pulling up in front of the café. “So do the expected thing. Stay dry. Tell me something. If he had come, your package, was I going to drive him to—wherever he’s staying?”
Mihai nodded. “Better.” He motioned his head to the side window. “Make the call. Before they wonder.”
There were four men playing dominoes and sipping tea from tulip glasses. When they looked up, Leon became what he wanted them to see—a ferengi caught in the rain, shaking water from his hat, needing a phone—and he flushed, a little pulse of excitement. A taste for it. Had Mihai seen it somehow, the way it felt, getting away with something. The planning, the slipping away. Tonight he’d taken the tram to the last stop in Bebek and walked up to the clinic. A trip he’d made over and over. If he’d been followed, they’d stay parked a block away from the clinic gates and wait, relieved to be snug, out of the rain, knowing where he was. But just past the big oleander bushes, he’d headed for the garden side gate, doubling back to the Bosphorus road where Mihai was waiting, feeling suddenly free, almost exhilarated. No one would have seen him in the dark. If they were there, they’d be smoking, bored, thinking he was inside. This other life, just walking to the car, was all his own.
The phone was on the wall near the WC. No sounds in the room but the click of tiles and the hiss of boiling water, so the token seemed to clang going in. A ferengi speaking English, the men would say. If anyone asked.
“Tommy?” At home, luckily, not out to dinner.
“Ah, I was hoping you’d call,” he said, a genial club voice with the clink of ice at the back of it. “You’re after that report—I know, I know—and my steno never showed. Trouble with the boats. Typical, isn’t it? First hint of weather and the ferries—” Leon imagined his round face at the other end, the jawline filling in, fleshy. “I can have it for you tomorrow, all right? I mean, the contract’s all right. We’re just waiting for the quotas. I’ve had American Tobacco on the phone half the day, so you’re all in the same boat on this one. All we need now are the signatures.” At Commercial Corp., the wartime agency that was Tommy’s cover at the consulate.
“That’s all right. I’m stuck here at the clinic anyway. Just wanted to check. If it was on its way.”
“No. Tomorrow now. Sorry about this. Let me make it up to you. Buy you a drink at the Park.” An off note. This late?
“I’m in Bebek.”
“I’ll get a head start.” An order, then. “Don’t worry, I’ll roll you home.” Their standard joke, Leon’s apartment building just down the hill from the Park Hotel, before Aya Pasa made its wide curve.
“Give me an hour.”
“From Bebek?” Surprised, an edge now.
“Take a look outside. It’ll be a crawl in this. Just save me a stool.”
The domino players were looking down, pretending not to listen. But what would they have made of it anyway? Leon ordered a tea, a way of thanking the barman for the phone. The glass was warm in his hand, and he realized he was cold everywhere else, the wet beginning to seep through his shoes. And now the Park, everyone looking and not looking, Tommy’s old-boy voice getting louder with each drink.
“Rain check,” he said to Mihai, getting into the car. “You free tomorrow?”
“Something’s up. We’re having a drink at the Park.”
“Very exciting, the tobacco business.”
Leon smiled. “It used to be.”
In fact, it had been sleepy, as routine and predictable as a Book of Hours. Agents bought the cured Latakia leaf, and he arranged the shipments, then took the train to Ankara to get the export permits. Leave Haydarpasa at six, arrive the next morning at ten. That’s how it had started, carrying things on the train for Tommy, papers they couldn’t put in the diplomatic pouch, something for the war effort. No money involved then. An American helping out, not just standing around at the club getting drunk with Socony and Liggett & Myers and Western Electric, the men interchangeable, lucky businessmen sitting out the war. Tommy asked him to help Commercial Corp. buy up chromium, so the Germans wouldn’t get it, and suddenly he was in the war after all, the peculiar one that played out over dinner at Abdullah’s or those consulate receptions where the sides lined up on either end of the room, cocktail wars. What surprised him later, when he knew more, was how many others were in it too. Tracking shipping through the straits. Collecting gossip. Turning a commercial attaché who needed the money. Everyone spinning webs, watching one another, the Turkish Emniyet watching them. Nothing sleepy anymore.
“I’ll drop you home. You’ll want to change.”
“No, just back to the village. I want to go to the clinic. Look in.”
Mihai waited until they were almost there. “How is she?”
“The same,” Leon said, his voice neutral.
And then there was nothing to say. Still, he’d asked. Anna was still alive to him, a presence, not just someone in Obstbaum’s clinic who had retreated into herself, gone somewhere behind her own eyes. People used to ask all the time—painful questions at the club, an awkward concern at the office—but gradually they began to forget she was still there. Out of sight, out of mind. Except Leon’s, a wound that wouldn’t close. Any day she might come back, just as quickly as she had gone away. Someone had to be there waiting.
“You know what I think?” Mihai said.
“Sometimes I think you do this for her. To prove something. I don’t know what.”
Leon was quiet, not answering.
“Do you still talk to her?” Mihai said finally.
“Tell her we got a boat out. She’ll like that.”
“Past the British patrols?”
“So far. Otherwise we’d be in Cyprus. Tell her three hundred. We saved three hundred.”
He took the same side street back, the same garden entrance. He’d expected to have to ring, but the door was unlocked and he frowned, annoyed the staff had been so careless. But no one was trying to get out and who would want to get in? The clinic was really a kind of nursing home, a place to be out of the way. Dr. Obstbaum had been one of the German refugees welcomed by Atatürk in the thirties to help the new republic get up on its feet. The ones who could afford it had moved to Bebek or, closer in, Ortaköy, where hillsides covered in fir trees and lindens may have reminded them of home. Or maybe, lemminglike, they had simply followed the first settler. Most of the clinic’s medical staff was still German, which Leon had thought might help, her own language something she would understand, if she was still listening. But of course the nurses, the people who bathed her and fed her and chattered around her, were Turkish, so in the end he realized it didn’t matter and now he worried that she was more isolated than ever. Dr. Obstbaum himself encouraged Leon to talk.
“We have no idea what she hears. This form of melancholia—it may be a matter of responding, not awareness. Her brain hasn’t shut down. Otherwise she wouldn’t be breathing, or have any motor functions. The idea is to keep up the level of activity. Over time maybe it grows. So, music. Does she hear it? I don’t know. But the brain does, somewhere. Something functions.”
Not disturbing music, but things she knew, had played at home. Lovely notes to fill the silence in her. If she heard them.
“Most of the time I think I’m talking to myself,” Leon had said.
“Everyone here talks to himself,” Obstbaum had said, a puckish joke. “One of life’s great pleasures, evidently. You at least are being asked.”
“It’s late,” the nurse said in Turkish, a hushed whisper, her eyes glancing down to the water dripping from his coat.
“Is she asleep? I’ll just say good-night. I’m sorry about—”
But the nurse was already opening the door, brusque, the client’s whims no business of hers. He’d sit and talk, the way he always did, and she’d have to check back again, another round, but it was a private clinic and he was paying.
Anna was lying in bed, the room shadowy, only a dim night-light on. When he touched her hand, she opened her eyes, but looked at him without recognition. It was the disconcerting thing, the way she took in what was happening around her without responding. Having her hair brushed, people moving across the room—things happened far away, just little blurs of movement.
“How are you feeling?” he said. “Warm enough? There’s a terrible storm.” He nodded toward the French windows, the sound of rain on the glass.
She didn’t say anything, but he no longer expected her to. Even her hand didn’t touch back. When he talked, he answered for her, silent responses to keep things going. Sometimes, sitting next to her, he’d actually hear her voice in his head, a ghost conversation, even worse than talking to himself.
“But this is nice, isn’t it?” he said, indicating the room. “Cozy. Gemütlich.” As if a change of language would matter.
He let her hand go and sat down in the chair.
When they first met, she’d never seemed to stop talking, bubbling over, switching from German to English as if one language couldn’t contain it, everything she had to say. And her eyes had been everywhere, ahead of the words sometimes, waiting for them to catch up, lighting her face. The odd thing was that the face was still her own, stopped in time, the wonderful skin, the soft line of her cheek, everything just the way it always had been, aging itself put off while she was away. Only the eyes were different, vacant.
“I saw Mihai tonight. He sends his love. He said they got a boat through. People are getting out again.” Something that might register, what she cared about. Don’t try to startle her, Obstbaum had said, just ordinary things, domestic matters. But how did Obstbaum know? Had he been to where she lived now? Did it matter to her that Fatma had been ill, sent her sister to do the cleaning? “Three hundred,” he said. “So they must be operating again. Mossad. Who else could it be? A boat that big.”
He stopped. The last thing he should have said, a reminder. Obstbaum thought it had happened then, when the Bratianu sank. Corpses bobbing in the water. Children. Her brain turning away from it, drawing a curtain. Obstbaum had even suggested she be put in a garden room, not a front one facing the Bosphorus, where ships passed all day, each one a possible reminder. Leon had gone along with him. Everyone in Istanbul wanted to see the water—in Ottoman times there had been laws about builders blocking the view—so a garden room was cheaper. And it was pleasant, looking toward the hillside, cypresses and umbrella pines and a Judas tree that dropped pink blossoms in the spring. A fortune back home but something he could manage here. And not a boat in sight.
“I thought I might need Romanian. They bring someone out but they don’t tell you who. They want me to babysit. I got Georg’s old landlord to find me a room. Out near Aksaray. They’ll never think to look in a Muslim neighborhood. And then the weather started up—”
He caught himself, hearing the sound of his voice saying names out loud, telling her what he didn’t want anyone to know, all the slipping away and double-backing for nothing. It occurred to him, one more irony, that since she had gone away they could finally talk to each other. All the things they couldn’t say before, other people’s secrets, now safe to talk about. Some things, anyway. Now there were other drawers you didn’t open, things you didn’t say. Your parents are dead. We haven’t heard, but they must be. They’re not on any lists. You can’t imagine what it was like, how many. The pictures. I see a woman. Just for the sex. It used to feel—wrong—and now I wait for it. Not like us. Something different. I don’t think you’re ever coming back. I can’t say it—can’t say it to you—but I think it’s true. I don’t know why this happened to us. What I did. What you did. Better to keep those drawers closed.
“I ran into Gus Hoover. Socony’s sending him home. You still can’t get a boat, though, so what do you think? They’re putting him on the clipper. Hell of a lot of money, but I guess they’ve got it to spend. Can you see Reynolds doing it for me? Not that I want to go. But you always wanted to, didn’t you? See New York.” He paused, leaving time for an answer. “Maybe when you’re better. We can’t really move you now. Like this. And I can take care of you here.” He motioned his hand to the room. “You could get better here.” He paused again. “Maybe if you’d try. Obstbaum says it isn’t a question of that. But what if it is? You could try. Everything could be the way it was. Better. The war’s over. All the terrible things.” Knowing as he said it that they weren’t over—people still in camps, boats still being turned around, everything she had gone away to escape still happening. What was there to come back for? Him? The drawer he shouldn’t open. Was it my fault? Another casualty of the war, Obstbaum had said, but what if she had left the world to leave him? Something only she knew and wasn’t coming back to answer. Not ever. Gus would fly home, all the others, and he would still be here, talking to himself while she stared at the garden. “You have to be patient,” Obstbaum had said. “The mind is like an eggshell. It can withstand tremendous pressure. But if it cracks it’s not so easy to put it back together.” A Humpty Dumpty explanation, as good as any other, but it was Leon who was sitting here, his world that had been cracked open.
“I have to go soon. Tommy wants to have a drink at the Park. On a night like this. Not that rain ever kept Tommy from a drink. Still. You know what occurred to me? He wants to bring me inside. Run my own operation. I mean, a job like this tonight, it’s not messenger work anymore. There’d be money in it. It’s about time he—” Babbling, filling time. “Do you have everything you need?”
He got up and went over to the bed, putting his hand on the dark hair fanning out beneath her. Lightly, just grazing it, because there was something unreal about physical contact now, touching someone who wasn’t there. And there was always a moment when he flinched, apprehensive, expecting her to reach up and snatch at his hand, finally mad. He passed the back of his hand over her forehead, a soothing motion, and she closed her eyes to it, looking for a second the way she used to after they made love, drifting.
“Get some sleep,” he said quietly. “I’ll be back.”
But not tomorrow. In the beginning he’d come every night, a kind of vigil, but then days slid by, filled with other things. Because the worst part was that, without even wanting to, he’d begun to leave her too.
Outside, he walked through the village to the shore road, glancing at parked cars. But he wouldn’t see them, would he? Not if they were any good. After a while you developed an instinct. The Turkish police had been clumsy when Anna worked with Mihai. They’d park someone in the lobby of the Continental, where Mossad had its office, a bored policeman in a business suit who must have thought himself invisible behind the cigarette smoke. The work had been open—arranging visas for the weekly train to Baghdad, the overland route to Palestine. Just a trickle of refugees, but legal. The police watched Anna go to the Red Crescent offices, watched her check the manifest lists at Sirkeci, watched the transfer to Haydarpasa, a pattern so familiar they never thought to look anywhere else. When the illegal work began, Mihai’s boats, they were still following Anna to Sirkeci, still smoking in the lobby.
Later, her work became a cover for Leon too. It was the Jewish wife working for Mossad who needed watching, not her American husband. Once he’d been playing tennis at the Sümer Palas in Tarabya when a man he assumed to be police wanted a quiet word. His wife. No doubt well meaning, but her activities were attracting attention. Turkey was a neutral country. They were its guests. It was a husband’s duty to watch over his household. Nobody wanted to be embarrassed. Not the R.J. Reynolds Company. Not the Turkish government. Leon remembered standing speechless in front of the old hotel, staring at the famous hydrangea bushes, trying not to smile, to savor the unexpected gift. Anna suspect, not him.
But that had been the locals. The Emniyet, the security police, were something else, never obvious, part of the air everyone breathed. Playing the home advantage. When Macfarland had been station head he was convinced they’d planted somebody inside, which would mean they might know about Leon too. Even unofficial, off the books. Tommy didn’t just pull the money out of his pocket. Where would they find him? Miscellaneous expenses? Jobs Tommy wanted to freelance out, like tonight.
The square was empty, no tram in sight, just two women huddled under umbrellas waiting for a dolmus. And then, improbably, there was a single taxi, maybe out here on a run from Taksim. Leon stopped it, glancing over his shoulder as he got in, half expecting to see headlights turning on, a car starting up. But no one followed. He looked out back. Only a thin line of traffic, everyone chased inside by the rain. In Arnavutköy a car pulled in behind, then went off again, leaving them alone. No one. Unless the taxi was Emniyet. But then the driver started to complain about something, the details lost in the swoosh of the windshield wipers, and Leon gave that up too. So much for instinct. Maybe he hadn’t had to do any of it—sneak out of the clinic, meet Mihai in the road. Maybe no one watched anymore. Maybe Mihai was right. It had become a habit.
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This reading group guide forIstanbul Passage was created in conjunction with The Literary Gallery Book Discussion Group. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What do you think the book’s title, Istanbul Passage, means? Could it represent more than one thing? What different kinds of passages take place throughout the book? 2. There is a strong sense of place in the novel–Istanbul, the Bosphorus, Galata Bridge, Bebek. How does the author describe these places in order to create a mood of deception and intrigue? 3. What is your initial impression of Leon Bauer upon first meeting him? Does your opinion of him change by the end of the book? If so, what accounted for this change? 4. Leon Bauer’s wife, Anna, is in a semi-comatose state when the book opens, yet to Leon she remains “alive, a presence, not just someone in Obstbaum’s clinic who had retreated into herself.…” To what extent does Anna haunt this book? How much do we learn about who she was and what she did as the story unfolds? 5. Both Alexei and Georg play chess with themselves, “playing both sides.” The name “Bauer” means “pawn” in German. What does the game of chess come to symbolize in the novel? 6. Alexei had a wife, Magda, who was killed. He says to Leon, “It’s a convenience, sometimes. To have nothing to lose.” Do you agree with this statement? Do you think it motivated Alexei to take chances with his own life and to have a total disregard for the lives of others? 7. Alexei says to Leon, “When you have blood on your hands, does it matter how it got there?” How would you answer this question? How does this question give insight into Alexei’s character and his murderous history? 8. Lily Nadir is described as a beautiful and wealthy woman who came from the harem and now “arranged things.” What is the nature of her relationship with Leon? With Altan? Is she a trustworthy character? 9. Istanbul’s mystique and sense of intrigue come from its many layers. Kay says to Leon, “This place. Who knows who anybody is?” Which characters are like the city—multi-layered and difficult to know at their core? 10. Leon becomes very protective of Alexei even though he knows he has done terrible things. Why do you think he comes to feel this way about the man placed in his charge? 11. Leon asks, “What do you do when there’s no right thing to do. Just the wrong thing. Either way.” Do you believe Leon was morally right in what he did? Do you think that he had other choices? Is what is “right” simply a matter of perspective and circumstance?
Joseph Kanon is the Edgar Award–winning author of Defectors, Leaving Berlin, Istanbul Passage, Los Alamos, The Prodigal Spy, Alibi, Stardust, and The Good German, which was made into a major motion picture starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. He lives in New York City.
“Intelligent plotting and vivid evocation of the city itself.”
– The New York Times Book Review
“Dialogue that can go off like gunfire…Takes its place among espionage novels as an instant classic.”
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Superbly crafted…A beautifully conceived and atmospheric thriller.”
– Library Journal (starred review)
“Offers access to the compromised milieu of a vivid metropolis in its first postwar winter, where everyone is trying to keep balance amid bad choices.”
– The Washington Post
"Istanbul Passage is a first-rate espionage novel, filled with complexity and thrills, but its greatest success may be in this much more universal literary exploration: how an ordinary man is transformed by extraordinary circumstances."
– Chris Pavone, New York Times bestselling author of The Expats, in Publishers Weekly
"Istanbul Passage bristles with authenticity. Joseph Kanon has a unique and admirable talent: he brilliantly marries suspense and historical fact, wrapping them around a core of pure human drama, while making it seem effortless. This isn't just talent; it's magic.”
– Olen Steinhauer, New York Times bestselling author of The Tourist
"With dialogue that can go off like gunfire and a streak of nostalgia that feels timeless, this book takes its place among espionage novels as an instant classic." --Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“A masterful work that is as gripping as it is intelligent.”
– The Daily Beast
“Kanon delivers a satisfying atmospheric thriller.”
– Entertainment Weekly
"Superbly crafted… A beautifully conceived and atmospheric thriller; highly recommended."
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