Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Review: the Snake Stone

Picador, 2007, ISBN 978-0-312-42802-0, 290 pages.

Thanks to Crime Scraps for to opportunity to win this book in one of its devilishly convoluted contests.

The rich backdrop of Istanbul in the mid-1800s is again the setting for latest investigation by Yashim, the eunuch with connections to the Palace. This time, the case is more personal. His friend, Stanislaw Palewski the Polish ambassador, brings a French archaeologist, Maximilien Lefevre, to dinner at Yashim's apartment. Neither Palewski nor Yashim care much for Lefevre. He is a boor and unappreciative of the food that Yashim has prepared. He also appears to be looking for the snake heads from the Serpent Column currently hidden in Palewski's residency. He may have other treasures in his sights. Yashim learns from other sources that Lefevre is not considered an honest archaeologist and not above theft of antiquities.

Later, Lefevre comes to Yashim looking for a safe way out of Istanbul. His investigations have made him a target of unknown persons who do not approve of unknown things being uncovered. Yashim finds him passage on a ship leaving for Italy and thinks he has seen to last of him. However, after the ship has sailed, his body, partially eaten by dogs, is found near the French Embassy.

While Yashim is not seriously considered a suspect, he was the last person in Istanbul to have seen him alive. Yashim fears that being mentioned in the report prepared by the French Ambassador will damage his reputation, make people think of him as unlucky, make it impossible for him to work for the Palace. Yashim need to find the truth about the murder before the French Ambassador submits his report to the Palace.

At the same time, parallel events are occurring. Market place merchants have been severely beaten and killed. There is much fear amongst the other merchants and Yashim learns of a shadowy Greek organization called the Hetira that may be involved. Also, the wife of a wealthy shipping merchant hires Yashim to find out what business a Frenchman (Lefevre) had with her husband.

Istanbul itself is one of the main characters in the novel. It is treated as a living entity and Goodwin is excellent in showing us what makes it live. We again visit the markets that feed to people but also see how water is delivered and distributed throughout the city. Hint: if you saw the James Bond film, From Russia with Love, then you've seen one of the locations that plays a major part in this book.

I hate to use the expression "cultural melting pot" but that is the only way to describe Istanbul. It makes for rich descriptions of Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Muslims contributing to the life of the city. This time we learn more of the history of the Greeks and how Constantinople became Istanbul.

Yashim's complete back story is still not revealed though we get another flash from when he was made a eunuch. Still not why or exactly by whom. It looks like Goodwin is going to parcel out this information.

I continue to enjoy the pacing this series. Yashim is a intuitive investigator. He observes, questions, and files away what he learns. Out of these bits and pieces the truth begins to manifest itself. There is one scene in particular that I enjoyed. Yashim is preparing a meal and an ingredient out of place leads him to important clue. It is a deft bit of writing that give us a look at Yashim's thought processes.

Yashim's next investigation takes him out of Istanbul to Venice, Italy in The Bellini Card. Look for it in March, 2009.