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.
This reading group guide forIstanbul Passageincludes suggested questions 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 The Accomplice, 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.