Istanbul Intrigues: An Ottoman detective and his adventures (Column: Bookends LXXI)

By Vikas Datta (08:39) 

Across the realm of fiction, there have been some singularly unique crime-solvers – bored ex-soldiers, journalists seeking the perfect scoop, enterprising pre-teenaged children, retired teachers, curious housewives, early psychoanalysts, insightful clergymen and other unconventional types – but trumping them for novelty is a savvy, resourceful eunuch working for the Ottoman sultan in mid-19th century Istanbul.

Yashim the investigator is, however, not Istanbul’s first detective, or even the first eunuch to investigate crimes. In the first respect, he is preceded in appearance by a clutch of policemen, led by the chain-smoking Cetin Ikmen and Mehmet Suleyman, in Barbara Nadel’s 17-installment series set in contemporary times. In the second case, it is Mary Reed and Eric Mayer’s John the Lord Chamberlain Mysteries, which first pitched as a eunuch – in the service of Emperor Justinian in 6th century Constantinople – as the principal protagonist, in 10 appearances since 1999.

But Yashim ‘Lala’ (the latter an Ottoman Turkish title for guardian that also found its way to India) holds his own. Nadel’s mysteries are contemporary crimes, though with a Turkish touch, and Reed and Mayer’s series may be too remote historically for most people, but our hero, in an Oriental society (where the West is making inroads) in nearly the modern age, is back enough in time to be exotic but not so far as to be unfamiliar.

For South Asian readers, the setting of a multi-ethnic society in a teeming city where opulent places alternate with squalid alleys and sordid tenements as well as grand ruins and memorials of older civilizations will strike a special chord. And an atmosphere of intrigue – harem, courtly and diplomatic – always stir things up.

Yashim is the creation of British historian and writer Jason Goodwin (1964-), who studied Byzantine history at Cambridge and after his first book (about the history of tea in India and China), walked from newly non-communist Poland to Turkey (recounted in “On Foot to the Golden Horn” 1993).

Discerning the Ottoman Empire’s continuing influence in Eastern Europe led him to write “Lords Of The Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire” (1999), which, in turn, led to the Yashim series, to portray in fiction a period (1830-40s) of the Ottomans’ slow decline, even as experiments with reforms were under way.

Yashim debuts in “The Janissary Tree” (2006), where he is tasked by Sultan Mahmud II to probe the murder of a harem inmate. Meanwhile, some western-trained army officers are being found brutally murdered – and it is feared that the elite Janissaries – violently repressed and disbanded a decade ago – are still around and making a bid to recoup their influence.

Aided/hampered by a cast of colourful characters – mystics, soupmakers, the vanished Poland’s envoy (still recognised by the Turks to annoy their Romanov and Habsburg rivals), the Russian ambassador and his alluring wife, the Sultan’s Francophile mother (whom legend held to be a missing cousin of Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine) and a powerful black eunuch, Yashim unearths the link between the crimes and foils an insidious conspiracy.

In “The Snake Stone” (2007), he has personal stake in solving the matter – he is the prime suspect. A shady French archaeologist on the trail of some priceless antiquities is found dead shortly after meeting Yashim, who has to find the murderer to clear his name.

Meanwhile, the Sultan lies dying, and a shadowy organisation seeking to revive the Byzantine Empire rises. Bearing another richly varied cast of characters – including the late poet Byron’s doctor – the story coasts to a spectacular finish with a desperate chase through the city’s subterranean water conduits.

“The Bellini Card” (2008) shifts the action to Venice, where Yashim is directed to go by the new Sultan (Abdulmecid I) to acquire a painting by renowned Renaissance artist Jacopo Bellini of his great forebear, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror (of Constantinople in 1453), but the vizier is not so keen. Unwilling to antagonise either, Yashim instead dispatches his friend, the Polish ‘envoy’ Stanislaw Palewski, in the guise of an American art collector. But when art dealers start turning up murdered, Yashim has to intervene personally.

Set prior to the above, “An Evil Eye” (2011) weaves various strands of intrigue including the defection of the Ottoman admiral (who was earlier Yashim’s mentor), discovery of a body near a Christian monastery, which nearly sparks of a sectarian riot while the “Baklava Club” (2014), touted to be the last (and still unavailable here, thus unread), has various bands of European revolutionaries in Istanbul and their twisted plots.

Enjoyable incursions into history apart from being engaging whodunits/thrillers, the series offers an unforgettable portrayal of the Ottoman state, long derided as the “sick man of Europe” but a boon as compared to what ensued later in its erstwhile dominions in the Balkans and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Yashim’s cooking interludes will make it captivating for gourmets too!

(21.06.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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