by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007; ISBN 978-0-374-29935-4)
I think this one might be my favorite Yashim mystery so far (I began with the latest in the series and followed that with the first). An unlikable French archaeologist is found murdered, his body mutilated by feral dogs, and Yashim needs to find out who is responsible, since he was the last to see the man alive and could be blamed for the murder unless he solves it. Several other people meet various sticky ends or not-quite ends. We learn about the watermen’s guild, the association of Albanians who maintain and run the water which supplies Istanbul, a great city without an obvious source of fresh water. The archaeologist’s beautiful young wife appears and seduces the eunuch, who twice nearly perishes in the underground waterways below the city. The sultan dies, survived by his mother, the valide, Yashim’s friend and protector. Yashim cooks, every mince and chop deliciously described. It makes the reader’s mouth water–this reader’s, anyway. The cooking scenes are many and do not appear to contribute to the plot, or plots, but they are among my favorite parts of the book. I prefer them to the graphic descriptions of corpses.
There is a lot of trashing of Greeks, especially those in the brand-new Kingdom of Greece, which has broken away from the weakening Ottoman Empire. I’m not sure if this reflects a prejudice on the part of the Ottomans-become-Turks or on the part of the author.
I really liked this passage, in which Yashim compares “Frankish” (Western European) culture to Ottoman culture:
Yashim knew how the Europeans lived, with their mania for divisions. They parceled up their homes the way they segregated their actions. The Franks had special rooms for sleeping in, with fussy contraptions created for performing the act itself, and all day long these bedrooms sat vacant and desolate, consoled by the dust rising in the sunlight–unless they belonged to an invalid. In which case the invalid herself shared the loneliness and desolation, far away from the household activity. The Franks had dining rooms for dining in, and sitting rooms for sitting in, and drawing rooms for withdrawing into–as if their whole lives were not a series of withdrawals anyway, tiptoeing from one room and one function to the next, changing and dressing all over again, forever on the run from engagement with real life. Whereas in an Ottoman house–even here, in the harem–everyone was allowed to float on the currents of life as they sped by. People divided their lives between what was public and what was reserved for the family, between selamlik, the men’s quarters, and haremlik: in the poorest homes, they were divided only by a curtain. If you were hungry, food was brought in. If you wished to sleep, you folded your legs, reclined, and twitched a shawl over yourself. If you were moody, someone was sure to drop in to cheer you up; ill, and someone noticed; tired, and nobody minded if you dozed. (p. 97)
It takes a comparison like this to be able to see that our way of compartmentalizing our lives is a choice; there are other, possibly better, ways to live.
Like the others, this book could do with a list of characters and a glossary.
Next up: An Evil Eye: Investigator Yashim in the Sultan’s Seraglio.