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.