Friday, April 15, 2011

An Evil Eye

My review of Jason Goodwin's An Evil Eye was published today in the Washington Independent Review of Books:
This fourth installment in Jason Goodwin’s mystery series featuring Yashim the investigator once again transports the reader to the fabulously exotic world of the 19th-century Ottoman Empire. As he did in The Janissary Tree, his Edgar Award-winning debut, Goodwin brings this literally Byzantine world to life with vivid descriptions, authoritative detail and informed understanding of the historical context. In An Evil Eye, he fully exploits the drama and beauty of Istanbul, a city that geography and culture have conspired to make one of the most fascinating places in the world.

Yashim is probably the first and only fictional detective who is a eunuch. As a lala, Yashim is able to live and operate alone in a culture that normally embeds everyone in a family. He is able to freely enter the inner sanctum of the palace, including the harem, barred to other men. And though it does not play a role in this book, Yashim’s condition does not prevent him from experiencing the romantic urges of other men.

An Evil Eye begins with the discovery of a murdered Russian in the well of an Orthodox monastery, skillfully highlighting Istanbul’s situation at the crossroads of continents, empires and cultures. The grand vizier, who runs the imperial government for the young new sultan, calls in Yashim to investigate. This is the role he has agreed to play for the government in exchange for freedom to live outside the confines of the palace.

As the action begins in 1840, the Ottoman Empire is in the midst of its long decline. Austria and Russia have chipped away at the edges of its territory, and Egypt has become autonomous. Russia, in particular, has had its eye on historic Constantinople with the idea of reuniting Orthodox Christianity with its original home.

But Yashim’s investigation does not take him in the direction of power politics. Instead, subsequent events lead him into intrigues of the harem. This legendary institution, designed to ensure a smooth line of male successors in the Ottoman dynasty, resembles less “a perfumed bathhouse full of naked odalisques” than “an old-fashioned girls’ boarding school,” as Goodwin notes in the acknowledgements.

In An Evil Eye, the sultan has moved to a new palace on the Bosphorus, leaving behind the maze of Topkapi Palace on Seraglio Point. Only the sultan’s grandmother, the valide, remains in the historic quarters, with a small retinue of other aging harem members.

Yashim, a longtime confidante of the valide, spends much of his time shuttling between the two palaces, trying to unravel the hidden connections between new additions to the harem, the harem’s aging female hierarchy and a young child mysteriously dropped in their midst. He must find out who has the “evil eye” that has resulted in one defective birth, a fatal hysterical pregnancy and a wasting sickness for one of the palace musicians.

Yashim is also trying to determine why the admiral of the imperial fleet, Fevzi Pasha, betrayed the sultan by sailing the fleet to Alexandria and handing it over to the Egyptians, exposing Istanbul to Russia’s “protective” embrace. Fevzi was at one point Yashim’s mentor, and he realizes that his earlier doubts about the admiral’s loyalty were justified.

Yashim pursues his investigation with occasional retreats to his apartment in Stamboul, where he recovers his equilibrium by preparing simple but authentic meals. (Goodwin offers the recipes for these Ottoman specialties on his website.) He visits his old friend, the Polish ambassador Palewski, who has become a man without a country after the German, Austrian and Russian empires divided up Poland and eradicated it from the map. And he relies on another friend, the transvestite dancer Preen, for sanctuary from prying eyes when necessary.

This is Yashim’s little world and remains constant throughout the series, which also includes The Snake Stone and The Bellini Card. Palewski, who functions as a kind of Watson to Yashim’s Sherlock, is less prominent in this new novel — which is welcome, because the author has not succeeded in making him a very interesting character.

An Evil Eye also departs from the formula established in the first three books in that Yashim does not fall in love or bed the beauty in the plot. Perhaps Goodwin has realized that this is perplexing to readers who do not understand the sex life of a eunuch.

The author has sketched the back story to Yashim’s condition, describing his castration as a child as part of an attack on his family by his father’s enemies. In this novel, Yashim comes across new information regarding this heinous deed. Goodwin gives intimations of Yashim’s anguish and ambivalence about his condition, but has avoided over the course of four novels adding any depth to the eunuch’s emotional life. He seems content to maintain the series as an Ottoman version of a murder mystery rather than pushing the literary envelope.

Ottoman is in. Jenny White has another popular historical mystery series, featuring Kamil Pasha as an investigating magistrate in a series starting with The Sultan’s Seal. While White’s lyrical descriptions of Istanbul are if anything more enchanting than Goodwin’s, her Kamil Pasha is a good deal duller than Yashim. Set later in the 19th century, White’s novels lose some of the exoticism of the earlier period. Yashim is still able to wear a robe and turban, while Kamil, living in a more Europeanized culture, wears a frock coat and fez.

English writer Goodwin, who studied Byzantine history at Cambridge, has succeeded in turning his fascination with the Ottoman Empire into an entertaining detective series. He started with a memoir of his walking trip across Europe, On Foot to the Golden Horn, and followed with a history of the Ottomans, Lords of the Horizon. It was his sister, television producer Daisy Goodwin, the author explains in the acknowledgments to The Janissary Tree, who encouraged him to take a detective-story approach to Ottoman history.

Though the award-winning debut novel is probably the better book, An Evil Eye is a perfectly good entrée into Yashim’s world of palaces and harems, bazaars and cafés, of caïques skimming across the Golden Horn and villains chasing heroes through Byzantine tunnels. An exciting read for any reader who wants to take a magic carpet ride to a world of Oriental fable.

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