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Book Review: The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

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I go a lot of places when I find myself holding a mystery novel. I see Raymond Burr looking serious in his Perry Mason suit and tie. I picture a London mist rolling up Baker Street and sometimes hear Basil Rathbone's exquisite pronunciation crying out "The game's afoot, Watson!" I do not, however, conjure the image of a turbaned eunuch in 19th-century Istanbul. Tell me I'm not alone.

Regardless of any Anglocentric bias in my understanding of investigators, the same cannot be said of Jason Goodwin. An Englishman with a marked Ottoman interest, Goodwin's first novel introduces the world to Investigator Yashim, a eunuch living in the Turkish capital in the 1830s. Because of his unique, albeit unfortunate, physiology, Yashim often works for the Sultan Mahumud II and his mother, the French-born Valide. Not long after taking on two new cases, the investigator finds himself embroiled in a coup attempt by a mysterious rebel faction called the Janissaries.

In recent years, it's been well nigh impossible to miss the flood of literature focusing on the Muslim world. Be that as it may, I've found nothing quite like The Janissary Tree, which won the Edgar for best novel in 2007. Rather than trying to overtly expand the reader's understanding of another culture, it uses its setting to excite and entertain. The story is very much set in the romantic past, in a far off land. That quality in and of itself will heighten the feelings of mystery and suspense for many readers. Yashim's Istanbul, like Holmes' London, is just gritty and dangerous enough to make it exciting, but never so seedy as to be too real. It's important to realize, though, that Goodwin is not simply luring us in with the aroma of foreign spices. The world he creates is tangible and vivid, borne out of first-hand knowledge (he also wrote Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire). Likewise, the characters which populate this novel are products of their environment, breathing life into the created world.

Investigator Yashim is everything you could want from a classic detective. He's intelligent, suave, interesting, and uniquely placed in society. That given, he's not the perfect hero. As the novel opens, he is coming off an unidentified case which took him away from Istanbul and did not, apparently, go to plan. In the brief discussion of it, the event is neither acknowledged as a success or an unmitigated disaster. Of the situation Yashim says, "There is little that can be done….That little, I did. I worked fast. Then I came back." It's an oddly ambiguous position in which to put a new hero. He is clearly active in and trusted by the government, but his effectiveness is questionable. At the same time, the reader is not presented with a once great maverick in search of redemption (see under James Bond). He's leaving the old case behind and moving on to the new one with what seems to be his customary self-confidence. The reader, however, has not been given any reason to share Yashim's tranquil faith. In a sense, I suppose this enigmatic introduction is appropriate for a character which is something of an aberration in his own society.

At first, I wasn't really sure what to make of the fact that Yashim is a eunuch. The last sentence of the first chapter declares his defining feature, or lack there of, and connects it to his ability to go relatively unnoticed or unconsidered. That is certainly a valuable trait in an investigator required to move between levels of society, but as for its relation to his physical state, I'm unconvinced. In the context of the story, Yashim must be a eunuch because he could not otherwise move with such freedom in the sultan's harem and private apartments. Goodwin's treatment of his character's status, however, creates some dissonance with the initial idea of societal transparency. The fact that Yashim is a eunuch is brought up again and again, often through the distasteful reaction of a secondary character. Rather than being ignored by those around him, the strong responses to Yashim's deformity push him into a place of some prominence and uniqueness. Since most of these instances don't add anything to the story, they come off feeling gimmicky, a reminder that we are reading about a foreign culture. I couldn't help but wonder if this emphasis was forced on Goodwin, as each instance seemed incongruous with the surrounding story.

Istanbul of the early 19th-century was a place of transition, at least as presented in the novel. In everything from military organization to modes of dress there is a powerful tension between a thousand years of Ottoman imperial tradition and encroaching Western modernity. This conflict serves as a backdrop and motivating factor in a series of grisly murders which Yashim is called upon to solve and stop. As he races around the city, he discovers that the showy homicides are only a prelude to a much broader and more dangerous conspiracy. With a cast of characters including cross-dressing prostitutes, a depressed Polish ambassador (as he should be, since his country doesn't exist at the moment), and the sultan's mother (a childhood friend of Napoleon's Empress), the story seldom lags. I had trouble being satisfied in the end, though, as the titular Janissaries didn't play as prominent a role as I'd hoped. There was also a pronounced lack of a singular villain, which made the conclusion somewhat nebulous.

As a first novel and the beginning of a series, The Janissary Tree is more than adequate. The story is entertaining and the set dressing is unique in its own right, more than just showy Turkish bangles. There's certainly room for Goodwin to grow both his character and his writing in the two books which follow, The Snake Stone (2008) and The Bellini Card (2009).

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