Today is Monday, but don’t despair. I’m taking the edge off the start of the week by reviewing an excellent mystery series: British author Jason Goodwin’s “Investigator Yashim” books.
Let’s begin with a little biographical note on Mr. Goodwin. I think the first thing to say is that he likes tea, which makes him our sort of person indeed. (Actually, his first book was all about tea.) He studied Byzantine history at Cambridge University, which I imagine took a lot of well-steeped black tea to get through. In addition to writing a very readable history of the Ottoman Empire, Mr. Goodwin has written five books in the Investigator Yashim series, to which we shall now turn.
They begin with The Janissary Tree: A Novel . The year is 1836, and the place is Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire is waning and, as the sultan is poised to announce a series of changes, murders sweep across the city. We need a detective, and Goodwin provides an excellent one: Yashim. Observant and inconspicuous, with mysterious origins and a skill for cookery, our detective is also a eunuch. This is a clever conceit of Goodwin’s, for it allows his detective to pass from city streets and the halls of power to the closed world of the harem. (And, before you ask, it does not preclude him from having the odd romantic dalliance.)
Indeed, one of the great gifts of Mr. Goodwin’s series is rescuing the harem from the pernicious influence of the Orientalist period. His harem emerges as far more interesting than any erotic fantasy. It is a place of dreams and hopes, as girls vie to pass a night with the sultan, but also of pettiness, jealousies, alliances, and friendships. One of the things I like most about Goodwin’s harem is its domestic quality. Floors must be swept, linens washed, and violins practiced. These women, most certainly, do not just lie around semi-nude on silk sheets!
I mentioned that Yashim is a skilled cook, and it would be remiss of me not to follow up on this. This mystery series is a sensuous evocation of Istanbul in the nineteenth century, not least because of Goodwin’s skill at describing its food. Just as Peter Mayle made us all want to travel to Provence to drink wine and pastis, Goodwin makes you want to eat currants, pine nuts, walnuts, pomegranate juice and mint (to name ingredients from just one page).
There are five books in the series, but there is one exception to their Istanbul-setting: The Bellini Card. Goodwin surrounds Yashim with a strong handful of secondary characters, my favourite being the Polish Ambassador to the Turkish sultan, Stanislaw Palewski. In The Bellini Card, Goodwin sends Yashim’s friend Palewski to Venice on Yashim’s behalf. The fact that Venice emerges as just as tantalizingly rendered as Istanbul speaks to Goodwin’s skill at conjuring a historical place.
I think you will enjoy this mystery series because it is an entry into a time and place that is certainly exotic, but also wholly realized and real. From the harem and palace to coffee and cardamom, Goodwin has managed to offer us something historically sound, but also alluringly romantic.
Until our next read,