An Evil Eye, the 4th in the Yashim, Ottoman Detective series
by Jason Goodwin
Published by Faber and Faber in 2011
ISBN 978-0-571-23987-0, 292 pages
Review published in Cornucopia
Jason Goodwin is a prize-winning historian and travel-writer, who mid-career, created a fictional detective, ‘Yashim’ and immediately plunged him in a series of terrifying adventures set amongst the dark alleys, exotic mysteries and subterranean passages of ancient Istanbul. Yashim has proved to be a wholely original creation, for he is a brilliantly deft cook, a half-Greek, half-Turkish Muslim who is a proud (if determinedly freelance) member of the old Ottoman court. He is also a eunuch, but one trained up in the palace school, so he can wrestle like a janissary, conduct himself with the self-effacing modesty of an Ottoman gentleman-scholar and talk as many languages as a vizier.
What he shares with that otherwise determinedly western pantheon of fictional detectives (be they Father Brown, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes) is a sharp-eye for detail allied to an intuitive genius with a mind more interested in unravelling the truth than upholding any state-sanctified standard of justice. He is also, like many of the detective breed, a self-contained individual, indifferent to fame and fortune, but with a subtle dependence on a few, deeply trusted friends. Such as Preen, the louche-directrice of a theatre-circus troupe and Palewski, the shabby, wine-loving scholar-ambassador of Poland, who has been marooned in old Istanbul in a disintegrating legation since the annexation of his nation by its three predatory neighbours. There is also charming but world-weary Valide Sultan, the ancient Dowager Queen-Mother of the Ottoman Empire, to whom Yashim is a devoted, and entirely respectful servant. These secondary characters are vital aspects to the success of the Yashim detective novels. For they create a varied spread of prejudice and insight which further expands our experience of the Old Ottoman Empire. And although the reader is utterly caught up in the devilish intricacies of the multi-layered plot at the time of reading, what you are left with at the end of a Yashim mystery is a complex picture of Istanbul and its deeply grained history.
So without revealing any of the details of the plot or the rich tapestry of subsidiary characters, I can warn readers of some of the subliminal pleasures that await a reading of the ‘Evil Eye’. Swift moving caiques on the dark waters of the Bosphorus, the scent of grilled fish (and a mouth-watering recipe for stuffed mackerel) and a wonderfully rich and evocatively imagined re-creation of the 19thcentury imperial palace at Besiktas, with the harem revealed as a place of dignity and immaculate order, as well as intrigue. Indeed the historical background is so skilfully tweezed out within the fabric of the plot (the Ottoman Empire caught between the ever-rising power of Russia to the north and that of Khedivial Egypt to the south) that before you know it, you have received a subliminal lecture in early 19th-century diplomacy, as you hungrily turn page after page. And unlike Flashman, the anti-hero cad at the centre of George Macdonald Fraser’s historical fiction series, it is but a matter of time before Yashim should be put forward to receive a medal from Ankara. For by my calculations, translated as ‘Yashim’ is, into 40 different language editions, he has probably done more to reverse the high banks of five centuries of European prejudice against ‘the Turke’ than any mere flesh and blood ambassador.
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by Barnaby Rogerson