Engaging characters bring historic Istanbul to life

2008-04-16 00:00

I’m sorry to have missed Jason Goodwin’s acclaimed The Janissary Tree, set in the Istanbul of the 1830s and featuring Yashim the Eunuch as detective. This is Yashim’s second outing in this role, and a wonderfully engaging character he is — wise, resourceful, calm, highly intelligent, yet as sophisticated, gentle and quietly humorous as befits his position of trust and responsibility in the

Sultan’s court.

Here, Lefevre, a French archaeologist, arrives in the city, bent on uncovering a lost Byzantine treasure — although at once rumours about his real motives begin to circulate. Yashim is hired to investigate, but before he can get anywhere Lefevre’s mutilated body is discovered, and Yashim himself (much to his discomfort) is the one on whom suspicion falls. He has to work against time to exonerate himself and find the real culprit.

Nothing new in this well-worn plotline, but the book is a fresh and delightful read all the same, set as it is against the richness of an Istanbul known and loved by Goodwin, a scholar of Byzantine history. But he’s no dry scholar — he brings the city and its people vividly to life, so that one absorbs the history, the colour and the atmosphere almost without noticing, because he writes so well and knows his stuff so thoroughly. Yashim is the star of the show, of course, but there are a number of interesting characters, including especially the ancient Validé, the mother of the dying Sultan, and an extraordinarily liberated, crafty and witty old Muslim woman able to make an interesting and influential life for herself despite the sorrow of impending bereavement and the strictures of the veil and the cloister.

A great pleasure.

Stephanie Alexander

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