There's a whole class of detective fiction in which a place, usually a city, is more the hero, more the key to the story, than any mere human. I'm thinking of the Sydney of Jon Cleary, the Victorian London of Anne Perry.
Having been to modern Istanbul, I can imagine, with its narrow ancient streets, its half-buried mysteries, its drifting glorious scents, that it would be a great setting. How much more so the Istanbul of Jason Goodwin's detective series featuring Yashim Togalu. This is Istanbul under the faltering Ottoman empire – the janissaries have been suppressed and the sultan is truly in control – or at least as much in control as any one man at the centre of an intrigue-ridden palace, in a fading empire – which has just lost the Crimea to the Russian, can be.
I was intrigued to see this detective series being advertised in a mass poster campaign on the London Tube – not something you see often for genre fiction – and after reading
The Janissary Tree I've no doubt this was a good investment by the publisher.
This is the first in the series. Goodwin is a historian who has specialised in the period, so he obviously seriously knows this almost-lost city, but he's got a novelists' eye for detail — he's particularly good on smells, and is clearly a man who loves to cook — and a fine line in elaborate plotting.
In this story a girl destined that night for the sultan's bed has been found strangled, murdered soldiers are being found around the city in elaborately arranged circumstances, and the sultan is planning to try to drag his reluctant people into 19th-century, Western modernity (far from the only echo of 21st-century modernity that you'll find here).
You'd think that Goodwin's hero could be a rival to the powerful force of this mysterious ancient city – he is in many ways a classical detective character, an informal, if mildly anarchic imperial agent, and a man intellectually and physically at ease in the most dangerous situation. But what's original here is that he's a eunuch – adding an intriguing level of complexity in gender relations.
But somehow, in this first book at least, Yashim fails to really leap of the page – you read on to find out what happens, you read on to explore another niche of the fascinating city, but you don't really care as much as you should about his fate.
Nevertheless, I'll be going back again with Goodwin to 19th-century Istanbul in The Snake Stone, and maybe in that Yashim will be able to rival his setting for attention, tough task that that is.