Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Review: The Janissary Tree, Jason Goodwin

Picador, 2006, 978-0-312-42613-2, 299 p.
2007 Edgar Award for Best Mystery

I haven't been drawn much to historical fiction but when I won a copy of The Snake Stone at Crime Scraps I thought I ought to read the series from the beginning and so picked up The Janissary Tree. It is quite a good read and I'm looking forward to starting The Snake Stone this weekend.

The story takes place in Istanbul, Turkey in 1836 and the Ottoman Empire is in danger of crumbling. Yashim Togaly is a free lance investigator who often works for the palace and the sultan. Yashim has a talent for languages, observation, and blending. He is also a eunuch which allows him special access to parts of the Palace, such as the harem, that would would mean death for other men.

Yashim is called upon by the seraskier, the commander of the army, to investigate the disappearance of four army officer cadets. The matter is pressing because the sultan is planning to announce major reforms during a military review and the Janissaries might be involved. The Janissaries were the sultan's mercenary guards who became corrupt and were crushed ten years before. Are they poised to reassert themselves? At the same time, one of the sultan's harem girls has been found strangled and, furthermore, the Napoleon jewels of the queen mother, the valide sultan, have been stolen. So Yashim has three cases to solve in a short time, one a threat to the empire and the other two a threat to his standing in the Palace.

I think that part of my reluctance to approach historical fiction is the suspicion that that the history will overwhelm the story. Zoe Sharp, in writing about the things she learns as background for her thrillers, says
The danger, of course, is that the research, instead of complementing the story, becomes the reason for it. It’s horribly easy to become so caught up in all this cool stuff you’ve discovered, that you try and squeeze it in at the expense of the storytelling craft. To forget that it’s there to service the story, not to take over from it.

But what immediately appealed to me about The Janissary Tree is that Goodwin is able to work in much information about the Ottoman Empire -- the culture, the politics -- without delivering lectures. For example, Yashim's best friend is the Polish Imperial ambassador Stanislaw Palewski. Within the action of the story we learn that Poland as a separate country has ceased to exist and his status, or lack of, contributes to the story. An of course Yashim's investigation requires that he look carefully into the Janissaries and what contributed to their fall ten years before.

Yashim is himself a fascinating character. We learn early that he is a eunuch and get a hint at how it came about but not why. Outwardly Yashim is a calm and thoughtful person but he has much inner anger and suffering at what is denied him. It is interesting that he can accept his friend Stanislaw's joke that together they make a whole man.

In the course of his investigation Yashim moves amongst the trade people and we learn about the guild structure. Goodwin is excellent at capturing the sights, sounds, smells, and street bustle of Istanbul but it blends into enhances the story.

Food and cooking have an important role in Yashim's life and we see him selecting, preparing, and cooking meals several times in the story and his skills are much appreciated by Stanislaw. For Westerners whose kitchens might have hundreds of implements, it is intriguing to see what Yashim can do with very little. Cooking is also a motif applied to other parts of the story but I will let the reader discover those themselves.

As as librarian myself, I enjoyed the several scenes that take place in the Palace Archives. There isn't a lot of detail on how things are stored and retrieved but we get a sense of the importance that ready access to information plays in the running of an empire.

I did find the conclusion to the main story - the disappearance of the four officers and a possible revolt against the sultan -- a little confusing and perhaps rushed but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the book.

The Janissary Tree has sparked in me an interest in historical fiction and I give it high marks.