Istanbul Passage

  • by Joseph Kanon
  • Narrated by Jefferson Mays
  • 14 hrs and 48 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

From the acclaimed, best-selling author of Stardust, The Good German, and Los Alamos - a gripping tale of an American undercover agent in 1945 Istanbul who descends into the murky cat-and-mouse world of compromise and betrayal that will come to define the entire postwar era.
A neutral capital straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul has spent the war as a magnet for refugees and spies. Even American businessman Leon Bauer has been drawn into this shadow world, doing undercover odd jobs and courier runs for 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, he is given one more assignment, a routine job that goes fatally wrong, plunging him into a tangle of intrigue and moral confusion.
Played out against the bazaars and mosques and faded mansions of this knowing, ancient Ottoman city, Leon's attempt to save one life leads to a desperate manhunt and a maze of shifting loyalties that threatens his own. How do you do the right thing when there are only bad choices to make? Istanbul Passage is the story of a man swept up in the aftermath of war, an unexpected love affair, and a city as deceptive as the calm surface waters of the Bosphorus that divides it.
Rich with atmosphere and period detail, Joseph Kanon's latest novel flawlessly blends fact and fiction into a haunting thriller about the dawn of the Cold War, once again proving why Kanon has been hailed as the "heir apparent to Graham Greene" (The Boston Globe).

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What the Critics Say

"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 best-selling author of The Tourist)
"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." (Publishers Weekly)
"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)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

What choice do you make when all options are bad?

Leon Bauer is, or appears to be, just an agent for American tobacco interests in Turkey. Rejected for military service, he's spent several years in Istanbul, learning the language and customs and steeping himself in the beautiful city that sits between east and west. With his German refugee wife, Anna, he has made Istanbul his home. Even after World War II ends, he has no desire to return to the United States.

Leon's other life is on the fringes of the intelligence community. He does occasional side jobs, mostly package deliveries, for a friend at the U.S. consulate. But when he gets an assignment to pick up a human package from a fishing boat one night, the job goes very wrong. Now, Leon has left the fringes of the murky world of espionage and is left stranded in its dangerous center, not knowing who he can trust, and improvising to complete his task on his own.

It turns out that Leon has a talent for acting as a lone agent, keeping his own counsel and observing everyone in his life to try to figure out what went wrong at the pickup, who might have been involved and who they might represent, all while he's working hard to figure out how to get Alexei, his human package, out of Turkey. Now he looks at everyone differently. Might there be a traitor at the consulate? Is an old friend a Russian agent? What about the hostess whose parties bring together people from all countries and interests; the guy who forges documents; the police investigator; Altan, the scrupulously-polite-but-threatening commander from Turkey's secret police; even those closest to Leon?

Leon may be new to the ruthless world of the secret agent, but is soon drawn into its moral ambiguities and compromises; using friends, even when it places them in danger, even as he learns how unworthy Alexei is of his help.

Joseph Kanon excels at drawing a picture of the immediate postwar period. Europe's cities are in ruins, loyalties in flux, power shifting and nobody knowing what the new world will look like. He's done it before in his novels, especially in The Good German and The Alibi, probably the novels most similar to Istanbul Passage. Though the mood may be the same, this is a different location, and one that adds a lot to the story. Istanbul has always been a divided city; east and west, Muslim, Christian, Jewish. In the 20th century no longer a world power, it sat uneasily between Germany and Russia during the war, and now it must walk a tightrope between the new powers, Russia and the United States. Istanbul is the perfect setting for this story and Kanon brings it alive, from the street bazaars to the bathhouses, the mosques, the back streets, the cafés where people sip tea from tulip glasses, the yalis––villas––on the waterfront, and the mysteriously beautiful and dangerous Bosphorus.

The title, Istanbul Passage, is well chosen. It can refer to to Leon's passage from almost an errand boy to a rogue agent, from a black-and-white moralist to somebody who reluctantly, and to his chagrin, learns from Alexei and Altan what it takes to survive when you're on your own. Or the title may refer to Istanbul's history as a place where people are bought, sold and smuggled. Throughout the war and afterward, the city served as a passage for refugees, especially Jewish refugees, to escape to a new life. And that Jewish refugee theme forms a part of this story as well.

This is not a shoot-em-up, action-packed thriller, but one that puts you into its time and place and in the mind of a man trying to figure out where his loyalties lie within it, and what choice to make when all the alternatives are bad.

Jefferson Mays's narration was fine, with one exception. He didn't much differentiate between male characters' voices, which was a problem with some dialog passages. Kanon tends to write some fairly lengthy passages of back-and-forth dialog. Without Mays using distinct voices for the characters, it was sometimes hard to figure out who was saying what.
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- Maine Colonial

A very somber experience.

Joseph Kanon can write, that's for sure, and Jefferson Mays is a good narrator. Nonetheless, listening to this book was a deeply ambivalent experience for me. For one, WWII was well over sixty years ago. Two, Schindler's List was such an astounding work of art that it is in a class by itself. I know one can't compare an audiobook to a movie, but the story of helping the traumatized Jews leave Germany and Poland has been covered many times. The setting of this book, Istanbul, is an interesting city to read about, and the characters are well drawn. However, the book is weighed down by millions of details, and it really does get boring. The love interest between Leon Bauer and Kay Bishop is one place at which the book comes alive. This furtive relationship is a sidebar, though. The plot centers on Leon's attempt to get a Romanian monster, a true butcher of Jews, out of Istanbul and into the West. It is possible to respect and admire this book without actually enjoying it. Kanon does a great job of weaving historical truth with fiction, but, for my money, Martin Cruz Smith is such a master of this genre that no one can touch him. The atmosphere of the book is quaint and dated. I know that it does not take place in the present, but I just did not feel lured into it. The writing is turgid and distanced. This one is only for true WWII history buffs. Another movie which tells a closely related story (I know I'm straying here) and which few people have seen, is Charlotte Grey. Cate Blanchett is the finest actor of our generation, in my opinion, and the movie tells the story in a gripping, deeply involving way which moves you to a welter of emotions. I would see it five or six times (and I have) before listening to this book.
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- Richard Delman "I am a 65-year-old psychologist, married for 25 years, with two sons who are 25 and 22. I love reviewing the books and the feedback I get."

Book Details

  • Release Date: 05-29-2012
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio