Coming in from the cold in gstanbul

Daniel Craig’s spectacular motorbike chase across the rooftop of the Grand Bazaar in “Skyfall” confirmed Istanbul’s place in the league table of one of the most stunning locations for James Bond films. Added to its first appearance in the 1957 Ian Fleming novel “From Russia with Love” (in the film Sean Connery rows through the Basilica Cistern) and the boat chase around the Maiden’s Tower where Judi Dench was imprisoned, for the film “The World Is Not Enough,” this makes the city a mecca for Bond fans.

You can join a 007 tour of the city, which takes in these sites as well as the ciraian Kempinski (where the press launch for Skyfall was held), the Pera Palace (Fleming’s Kristal Palas was modeled on this), Sirkeci Station (where Bond boarded the Orient Express) and, of course, the Russian Consulate. Real aficionados will have also booked extensions to see Fethiye where a beach bar scene was filsmed and, of course, the stunning Varda Viaduct near Adana.

But it wasn’t the world’s greatest cinema franchise that brought the glamor of the world of espionage to Istanbul. The city’s location has made it a magnet for spies for centuries. And the politics of the 20th century that saw the Cold War develop and Turkey become the most easterly member of NATO meant that this underworld of spies flourished.

The legendary World War II Nazi spy codenamed Cicero — an Albanian called Elyaza Basna — was known to frequent the Park Hotel by the German Consulate. And one of the most infamous British spies — the traitor Kim Philby — was also based here for a number of years.

These days are, one must assume, not completely over. Charles Cumming’s latest spy novel “A Colder War” — newly out in paperback — is set in Istanbul and he so perfectly describes the secrets of the spy’s tradecraft that I have begun to suspect everyone sitting opposite me on the Marmaray and fellow tea-drinkers at the newly opened municipality tea garden in my neighborhood.

I used to just enjoy playing spot the spook at international gatherings at the consulates. It is easier with the Americans, as the young, good-looking man with short, neat hair, dressed in a perfectly cut suit is an exact cookie-cutter of a US agent. Think Kevin Costner in “The Bodyguard” and look around the room and you have him nailed. It’s a bit harder in the grounds of the British Consulate — that beautiful remnant from the empire in Pera that was the scene of a tragic terrorist attack over a decade ago. A more seasoned British expat told me once, “It’s the incredibly clever guy with super-intelligent conversation who has been here less than two years they move them on when they get too settled, you know.”

But since reading “A Colder War,” I’ve realized anyone on the streets of Istanbul could be a spy. It could be you it could even be me. Cumming was apparently approached by the British Secret Services and trained by them, but then declined to join. At least that’s what the blurb tells us. Maybe he didn’t decline. Maybe he joined and this is a real episode, dressed up as fiction, designed to warn someone or send a coded message But now I’m being paranoid!

The hero in this story has four registered legends — or aliases. Maybe one is the person standing over there in the dolmui line. The Russian agent named Kodak uses a tea house as a meeting place. It all looks very innocent — a game of backgammon, a glass of tea ordered. But something as simple as the choice of an item of clothing can give a signal. Hmm All just a normal scene in Istanbul. And it is not just foreigners we need to suspect. There are local assets, too. A Turk Telekom employee helps in setting up wiretaps when necessary. A taxi driver can have his silence bought. Everyone has a price in this shady world.

In order to throw off surveillance one experienced agent changes his clothes in the bathroom of a restaurant. I’ve seen high school girls do that, changing out of their school uniforms and into something more casual for going out. Maybe they are working for one side or the other.

Before you think I’m getting carried away, Cumming gives us a delicious line describing the wake after the funeral of a British spy. His friends and family just thought he worked as a civil servant and so his colleagues who attend must have equally boring jobs. We read that “the two old ladies from the village are offering tea and Nescafeacute to the great and good of the transatlantic intelligence community” — all in total ignorance of the double lives around them.

This funeral is the reason for the mole hunt. Paul Wallinger was witness to the blowing up of an Iranian nuclear scientist near the Ishak Paia Sarayi in Doiubeyazit. The other side could only have known he was being extracted if there was a leak. There had been too many assets lost in the last few months for this to be a lucky strike. Now Wallinger is dead following a small plane crash near izmir. Maybe it was just mechanical failure, but just maybe the mole was aware someone was onto him. Thomas Kell is called in from the cold to investigate. His mission is twofold: discover why Wallinger was in Chios and why is he now dead.

This is a superb modern example of the classic spy novel. There is intrigue, tradecraft, romance and glamor. Kell also has the chance to extract revenge on the “cousin” (Brit spy-speak for US agents) who was responsible for him being out in the cold in the first place. There is also Wallinger’s beautiful daughter Rachel. She’s running her own investigation, but not into the crash. She’s trying to track down her father’s latest lover, Cecilia Sandor, who now runs a restaurant in Croatia. The two investigations, and of course the two investigators, are destined to intertwine.

Every so often the suspense is ratcheted up a notch with the introduction of a shadowy character in a very short chapter. They sprinkle in flavor and an air of mystery like an herb in a culinary dish. It takes a few more chapters before we discover whether our guess as to the results of the actions of these new players is right or not.

As the super plot rolls towards its eventual conclusion there are of course the requisite twists and turns. Just when all seems lost it is managed to be salvaged once more when all seems to be running smoothly up pops an obstacle to be tripped over.

But the beauty of Cumming’s writing is that he has done his research and so is able to give us exquisite descriptions that immediately take us right to the scene of the action, and make us smile in the process. In a small hotel in Doiubeyazit, when pide is served, a spy takes “the chipped, white plate” offered to him. On taxi cabs he writes, “No cab in the history of Turkish transportation had ever been fitted with a functioning rear seat-belt.” On flying: “liquids farcically bagged, shoes and belts pointlessly removed.” And on Athens: “cradle of civilization, epicenter of global debt.”

Kell may catch his mole, but a lot of suspicion is cast on a many innocent people and those mere amateurs who enter this game don’t come out of it alive. Spying in Istanbul seems to be a risky and a treacherous business, but oh so delightful as a read. Let’s be careful out there!

“A Colder War” by Charles Cumming is published by Harper Collins. 7,99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-000746750-1 Rating: four stars out of five