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Jason Goodwin is a prize-winning historian and travel writer who, mid-career, created a fictional detective, Yashim, and plunged him into a series of terrifying adventures set among the dark alleys and subterranean passages of old Istanbul.
Yashim has proved to be a wholly 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 modesty of an Ottoman gentleman-scholar and speak as many languages as a vizier.
What he shares with that otherwise determinedly Western pantheon of fictional detectives 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 the charming but world-weary Valide Sultan, the ancient Dowager Queen Mother, 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 you are utterly caught up in the devilish intricacies of the plot, what you are left with at the end of a Yashim mystery is a complex picture of Istanbul and its deeply grained history.
Without revealing the plot, I can warn readers of some of the subliminal pleasures that await a reading of An Evil Eye. Swift-moving caiques on the dark waters of the Bosphorus, the scent of grilled fish (and a mouthwatering recipe for stuffed mackerel) and a richly evocative re-creation of the 19th-century imperial palace at Beşiktaş, with the harem revealed as a place of dignity and immaculate order as well as intrigue.
The historical background is so skilfully intermingled with the fabric of the plot (the Ottoman Empire caught between the ever-rising power of Russia to the north and khedival Egypt to the south) that before you know it you have received a subliminal lecture in early 19th-century diplomacy. Translated as he is into 40 languages, Yashim has probably done more to reverse five centuries of European prejudice against “the Turke” than any flesh-and-blood ambassador.
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