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The Janissary Treeby Jason Goodwin
Synopses & Reviews
When Jason Goodwin explored the Ottoman Empire in Lords of the Horizons, the New York Times Book Review hailed it as a work of dazzling beauty...the rare coming together of historical scholarship...with luminous writing. Now he returns to Istanbul, with a delicious mystery — The Janissary Tree.
It is 1836. Europe is modernizing, and the Ottoman Empire must follow suit. But just before the Sultan announces sweeping changes, a wave of murders threatens the fragile balance of power in his court. Who is behind them? Only one intelligence agent can be trusted to find out: Yashim Togalu, a man both brilliant and near-invisible in this world. You see, Yashim is a eunuch.
He leads us into the palace's luxurious seraglios and Istanbul's teeming streets, and leans on the wisdom of a dyspeptic Polish ambassador, a transsexual dancer, and a Creole-born queen mother. And he introduces us to the Janissaries. For 400 years, they were the empire's elite soldiers, but they grew too powerful, and ten years ago, the Sultan had them crushed. Are the Janissaries staging a brutal comeback?
The Janissary Tree is the first in a series featuring the most enchanting detective since Precious Ramotswe of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Splendidly paced and illuminating, it belongs beside Caleb Carr's The Alienist and the historical thrillers of Arturo Perez-Reverte.
"As Jake Barnes would say, it's 'a rotten way to be wounded,' and who knows better than Yashim? An intelligence agent plying his wits in the final century of the Ottoman Empire, Yashim is brave, resourceful, handsome and polyglottal, and he cooks a mean kebab. All things considered, he would make any houri a fine husband if he weren't, to use his own mordant terminology, 'unencumbered by the plums... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) that other men had gobbling at their groins.' Yashim's condition makes him quite possibly the world's first neutered detective (unless you count Tee Tucker, the corgi co-sleuth of Rita Mae Brown's never-ending Sneaky Pie series). Even in 1836 Istanbul, eunuchs are comparatively rare, but Yashim's outsider status allows him to patrol the city streets unnoticed and gives him free rein of the seraglios of Topkapi Palace — access that comes in handy when one of the harem girls gets offed and the jewels of the sultan's Creole mother go missing. An even larger mystery: What happened to the four palace guard officers who got into a cab with a Russian diplomat and were never seen again? As their corpses materialize in various shades of grisliness, Yashim wonders if the killers aren't holdovers from the Janissary sect, ruthless mercenaries who were virtually exterminated 10 years earlier on the sultan's orders and who may be reuniting for a final strike against the politically weakened Ottoman establishment. To the task of animating this exotic business, first-time novelist Jason Goodwin would appear to be extremely well suited, having written a pair of esteemed travel-cum-history books on Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire. And if nothing else, 'The Janissary Tree' does apply a corrective poultice to assorted Orientalist fantasies. 'Westerners ... had an intensely romantic and imaginative picture of the harem,' reflects Yashim. 'For them, it was a honeyed fleshpot in which the most beautiful women in the world engaged spontaneously at the whim of a single man in salacious acts of love and passion, a narcotic bacchanal.' In reality, the imperial harem was 'like a machine. The sultan, pumping a new recruit in the cohort of imperial concubines, was simply a major piston of an engine designed to guarantee the continuous production of Ottoman sultans.' Speaking of pistons, Goodwin isn't above dusting off a few old fantasies of his own. Check out Eugenia, a hot Russian ambassador's wife who conforms to those time-honored diplomatic practices of wandering the embassy naked (except for a sable coat) and shrugging out of peignoirs at the slightest provocation. 'By the jewels, Yashim thought, she is lovely: lovelier than the girls in the sultan's harem. Such white skin! And her hair — black as shining ebony. ... She wants me, Yashim thought. And I want her.' Just in case there are any doubts on that score, Eugenia utters that come-on so favored by Istanbul males: 'So take me, Turk!' Silly sex and incense-laden lore should make for a more enticing book than 'The Janissary Tree' ultimately proves to be. The problem is that Goodwin, for all his world travels, hasn't quite completed the passaggio to fiction. His historical inventories sit heavily on the page, and just when you want him to drag you down an alley, you hear him calling you back to the lecture hall, like some non-tenured professor hellbent on making his points. All of which are beside the point. If we're going to negotiate a maze of imams and babas and pashas and seraskiers, we'll need some kind of emotional towline to grab on to, and that's the one item missing from Goodwin's itinerary. Yashim has little if any personal stake in the outcome of the mystery, and, frankly, neither do we. The sultanic dynasty is in danger? You don't say. Goodwin certainly has the narrative skill to construct a novel, but the only time I caught him thinking like a novelist was in a frankly extraneous digression close to book's end. Fires have broken out across the city, and hordes of Stamboulians have poured onto the streets, colliding and separating, and it is here that Goodwin, like a ministering accountant, steps in to track the skein of unanticipated consequences. 'Alexandra Stanopolis, a Greek girl of marriageable age, had her bottom pinched sixteen times and hoarded the secret to her death in Trabzon fifty-three years later, when she finally revealed it to her daughter-in-law, who herself died in New York City. 'A notorious miser known as Yilderim, the Thunderbolt, lost a wooden chest he was carrying to a cheerful thief who later found it contained nothing but a silken scarf with a very tight knot in it; the miser died later in an asylum and the thief in Sevastopol, of dysentery, still wearing the knotted scarf.'" Reviewed by Louis Bayard, whose most recent novel is "Pale Blue Eye", Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] promising new mystery series....[T]he reader is treated to an appropriately exotic tour of a time and a place where intrigue, deceit, and corruption fueled perilous personal and political passions." Booklist
"Goodwin has the most tantalizing material to work with...but somehow, what should have been conveyed vividly about this melange of exotica is instead a bit humdrum." Kirkus Reviews
"The Janissary Tree...is the perfect escapist mystery..." New York Times Book Review
"Everything you could want from a novel — a cracking story, beautifully written, with a wonderful seductive and original detective in the figure of Yashim the Eunuch." Kate Mosse, author of Labyrinth
"Intelligent, elliptical and beguilingly written, The Janissary Tree is a rare pleasure." The Times (London)
"An unusual, exotic historical mystery that reads like literature and moves like a thriller." George Pelecanos, author of Drama City
Winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel
It is 1836. Europe is modernizing and the Ottoman Empire must follow suit. But just before the sultan announces sweeping changes, a wave of murders threatens the fragile balance of power in his court. Who is behind them? Only one intelligence agent can be trusted to find out: Yashim, a man both brilliant and near-invisible in this world, an investigator who can walk with ease in the great halls of the empire, in its streets, and even within its harems--because, of course, Yashim is a eunuch. His investigation points to the Janissaries, who, for four hundred years were the empire's elite soldiers. Crushed by the sultan, could they now be staging a brutal comeback? And can they be stopped without throwing Istanbul into political chaos?
This first book in the Investigator Yashim series is a richly entertaining tale, full of exotic history and intrigue.
About the Author
Jason Goodwin's previous books include Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire and On Foot to the Golden Horn. He lives in Sussex, England, is married with four children, speaks French and German and once walked from Poland to Istanbul.
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