Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin

Year: 1840
Locations: Istanbul, Turkey; Venice, Italy

The very young new sultan -- he assumed the title at the end of The Snake Stone when his father died -- learns that a Bellini portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror may have surfaced in Venice. He dispatches Yashim the eunuch detective to acquire the portrait. Palace politics intervene and it is "suggested" that it might be beneficial to his health to ignore the request. Heeding the suggestion, Yashim instead asks his friend, Palewski, the Polish ambassador without a country, to go to Venice disguised as an American art collector. Palewski quickly discovers this is not a simple assignment but lethally dangerous.

I enjoyed the previous books, The Janissary Tree and The Snake Stone, but this one looks to be my favorite. Oddly, aspects of the book I most enjoyed others found less appealing. Palewski takes the lead for the first two thirds and he is strong enough to carry the action. I liked the way his personality and background came out. I find him a much more interesting character for having carried a good part of the book.

Yashim does have an active role in the story. The author continues to work Yashim's skill at cooking into the story and has almost convinced me that I can learn to like aubergines (eggplant). Godwin has great fun describing how Yashim cooks and the modern reader will appreciate what he can do with one or two pots and a knife. Yashim is also seen to be a man of action when the circumstances demand. We normally see him negotiating the byzantine politics of Istanbul but is shown quite capable of handling himself in a dicey situation.

Most of the action takes place in Venice and the author is as skilled portraying this city as he is Istanbul. Venice was once the Republic of Venice and an imperial power with a noted navy. Having passed alternately through French and Austrian hands, Venice is part of Austria's Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia at the time of this story. Goodwin describes Venice as a decaying remnant of its former glory, the canals little more than open sewers, its nobility now destitute and dissolute.

The story does not move quickly because the author is giving us a comprehensive look at the history and culture of the time in which the story is set as well as the mystery itself. The story itself takes many twists and turns until Yashim finally reveals what has been at stake.

Highly recommended if you enjoy historical mysteries where the setting is nearly as important as the story.