12 June 2010

Book Review: The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

The Janissary Tree Ten years ago, the powerful and corrupt Janissary Corps was defeated by the Western-style New Guard. Now four of the latter’s brightest cadets have disappeared ... and one has turned up in a giant cauldron just like the ones the Janissaries used as war drums. With only ten days until a review of the New Guard and a major proclamation by the sultan, the palace sends for Yashim Togalu. He’s solved problems for the sultan before, so he ought to be able to solve this one, too. Better still, he can also find whoever strangled a girl from the harem, for Yashim is one of the few men who can set foot in the women’s quarters - he’s a eunuch.

With a deadline approaching and more bodies turning up, Yashim quickly finds himself floundering in a sea of questions. Judging from where and how the dead men are dumped, there must be some connection to the disgraced - and supposedly eradicated - Janissaries. Or does it have more to do with the heresies in which the Janissaries indulged, or their crooked practices in the fire brigade? Can Yashim determine where the next victim will be deposited in time to save the man’s life? Who killed the harem girl? And who made off with the validé sultan’s collection of Napoleonic jewels?

I love novels that can double as tour guides to a given time and place. The Janissary Tree does this so well that its plot could not have happened in any other city, in any other era. The Istanbul of 1836 lives and breathes - and rattles and reeks - on the page. The food, the city customs, the history, diplomatic relations, life in the imperial palace, markets, entertainment ... it’s almost better than non-fiction, since the information comes packaged with a mystery to solve. And with characters who are very much of their place and time: deeming trousers and chairs to be strange innovations, marveling at the odder ideas of the westerners, and thoroughly enjoying tripe soup.

My favourite character was the sultan’s formidable mother, who turned a kidnapping by pirates into an opportunity to become the most powerful woman in one of the greatest empires in the world. (And who threatened Yashim with the dire fate of never being able to borrow another of her French novels ever again if he didn’t get her jewels back.) I also liked Stanislaw, who would have been the Polish ambassador had Poland actually existed at the time, and who took great delight in helping his friend by infuriating the Russian ambassador during a state dinner. They, and Yashim, are characters I’d like to meet again.

The mystery kept me guessing right to the end, when it left me quite chagrined with myself for not even coming close to spotting the giveaway clues. Yashim was a great choice of detective, his unusual status as a eunuch enabling him to go anywhere and get overlooked much of the time. It’s also allowed him to acquire friends in all sorts of odd places. (You never know when a cross-dressing dancer might be able to help you out.) Plus he cooks and reads; what’s not to like?

The latter half of the book left me puzzling over why the numerous point-of-view switches were irritating me here when I’ll happily accept them in other books, and at last I had an epiphany. Frequent detours into the heads of secondary, or quite minor, characters can work in thrillers; but when reading a whodunnit I expect to spend the bulk of my time following the detective as he tracks down the bad guy/s. I don’t expect that in around a third of the chapters, he won’t show up at all. It gave the novel a fragmented feeling. I also didn’t like the way the narrative occasionally did a little timeslip, backtracking to cover the immediate past from someone else’s perspective, so that a pair of consecutive chapters could end with the same cliffhanger. Readers are smart people; they’re capable of inferring action they haven’t actually seen.

And sometimes the sheer volume of historical research threatened to overwhelm the plot, so consider yourself warned if you don’t like history lessons with your crime fiction. But I do, so I’ll be back for more.

Rating: B-

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776