Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
Is the Kanon Canon Worthy of John LeCarre?
August 20, 2015 -- Is author Joseph Kanon in the same league as spy-master John Le Carre? Some reviewers say he compares favorably, but the only way for you to know for sure is to check out Kanon's spy thrillers, which include The Prodigal Spy and Istanbul Passage.

I recently read both books within a few weeks of each other and while I can appreciate the comparison, I have to read more of Kanon's work before I weigh in with a definitive opinion.

I far prefer his earlier novel, 1998's The Prodigal Spy, which is carefully paced, well-plotted, often suspenseful and never tedious. It stumbles somewhat at the finish line when our hero, by his own choice, comes face to face with J. Edgar Hoover and successfully confronts the FBI's tough and unforgiving boss. For starters, I have an aversion to fictional characters who intermingle with real-life figures, especially when the outcome of this interaction is hard to swallow. I also have to wonder why an author would close such a well-crafted and believable story with something like the Hoover distraction.

In a nutshell, here's the story, which takes place primarily in 1950 Washington and then Prague before ending up back in the nation's capital. There's this young lad named Nick Kotlar, who worships his father, a high-level figure in the State Department. Walter, Nick's dad, is happily married to Nick's beautiful mother. This is obviously a family that is going places. Until, that is, Walter is interrogated by the lead counsel of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The senior Kotlar seems to be winning the battle of words, but, before the hearings conclude, Nick's father gets a mysterious phone call and, without explanation, flees the country. The inference, of course, is that Walter has been spying for the Russians.

We pick up the tale 20 years later when Nick, now a college graduate doing research work in London, is approached by an attractive young woman who claims to have met his father in Prague. Walter is apparently dying of cancer. And although he's never gotten in touch with his son and former wife after fleeing the United States, the senior Kotlar now is anxious to see Nick as soon as possible.

Nick is torn, but curiosity wins out over anger. He and the lovely go-between head for the Czech capital. I won't go any further here, but there are several engaging complications: Nick's mother, for example, has married his father's best friend and he's now heading up peace negotiations with North Vietnam in Paris.

Another twist: The night Nick's father disappeared, a young woman who was a key figure in the House Committee's case against Walter Kotlar may have committed suicide--or may have been thrown out of her hotel room window. Did his father do it? Nick feels he has to pursue this unsolved question among many others and begins to behave like a spy.

His father figures out who has betrayed him. The identity of the real perpetrator may be a stunning surprise.

Istanbul Passage, a best-seller in 2012, revolves around Leon Bauer, an American tobacco merchant who occasionally doubles as a spy for the U.S. Embassy in Istanbul in the years after World War II. Tied to Istanbul on a personal level by his comatose wife, who collapsed from the strain of helping Jews pass thru Istanbul on their way to the new Jewish state of Israel, Leon is recruited by an American intelligence officer. His mission? Pick up a shadowy figure destined to be flown to the United States in a few days.

The stranger, Alexi, as he is called, turns out to be a Romanian who played a major role in the Nazi death camps and exterminated Jews and others during the War. Hiding Alexi prior to his departure is complicated by his being wanted by the Russians and Turks as well as the Americans. Keeping him safe for the moment is a difficult chore in a neutral city that is flooded with post-war spies from nations on both sides of the Bosphorus. Istanbul itself becomes a character in this often slow-moving, but always tense novel.

Leon lives a complicated life: He becomes involved with the beautiful wife of his big boss in the spy game. He forms a relationship of sorts with a high-level figure in Turkish intelligence. And there is a ship with 400 Jewish refugees that has encountered critical obstacles to its departure from the Turkish city. All of this is readable, but I found the explanations at the end of the story to be unnecessarily complicated and far-fetched.

Besides these two thrillers, four other Kanon works are often recommended by both critics and readers: Alibi; Los Alamos; The Good German and Stardust.

Even if you don't find that Kanon compares favorably to Le Carre, he's still worth spending a few flights with. But beware his rapid-fire monosyllabic style, typified by such phrases as "She sat down," "He stood up" and "They left together."

Editor's note: Most of Kanon's works are available in several formats from Amazon.com.

This column is Copyright 2015 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.