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.
"[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.
Reading Group Guide
1. As we find out early on, Yashim is a eunuch. What about his being a eunuch makes him different from those around him? How do people treat him differently? Do you think he is treated more like a relic from a lost era, or is he more or less treated just like everyone else?
2. How different would this story be if it were set in a more contemporary time? In what ways would Yashims style of investigation be different? What are the most striking differences between Yashims methods and those of a contemporary detective? Could you imagine Yashim in a modern setting? Could he be a character on a show like CSI? Or is there something about his way of solving mysteries which doesnt fit in a modern scenario?
3. Why do you think Yashim and Palewski are such good friends? What is it about their personalities and their histories that makes them so well suited to one another? Would their friendship change if Poland were liberated during their lifetimes?
4. Why do you think Ottoman life was so regimented and ritualized, as with the master of the Soup Makers Guild, who works passionately to keep novel ingredients out of all soup in Istanbul? Why do you think there was such a fear of novelty? How is crime investigation different in a culture which has so many codes and rituals? Is it easier or more difficult?
5. What was your impression of the shifting in narrative voice from one character to the next between the various chapters? Do you think the purpose of this was to give us an intimate view of multiple characters in Istanbul? Or do you think it was to show how people reacted to Yashim? Both? Neither?
6. What do you think motivates Yashim? Does Yashim have a passionate desire to see justice done? Is he motivated by a love of humanity? Duty? (e.g. p.95). Does he have multiple motivations? Is there anything petty that motivates him, or do you think his motives are noble?
7. There are multiple passages that talk about Yashim suffering, or being bitter (p.129, p. 253), or about what Yashim has to go through. What is it that makes Yashim suffer? Is it merely being a eunuch? Is it something else? If not, what about being a eunuch, in Yashims time and place, could make him suffer so? Would you be bitter, or do you think you could learn to accept your condition without acrimony?
8. Part of Yashims strategy as an investigator is to blend in, not to be noticed, not to call attention to himself (e.g. p.56). How do you think he does this? What is he trying to achieve through this sort of anonymity? Would he be able to pull off this sort of effect if he werent a eunuch? Would he even have conceived of such a strategy if he werent a eunuch?
9. What did you make of the conversational style of the dialogue? Do you think Goodwin opted for a more modern sound to make the world of 1830s Istanbul less foreign to contemporary readers? Or do you think that he was trying to illustrate to readers how people back then spoke in their own slang just as we do, and this is how they would have sounded to each other? Or do you think Goodwin had a different reason?
10. Do you think theres any possible compromise between the forces of change and the traditional? After ten years, could there not be a general amnesty for the Janissaries? Could not something of the Janissary mysticism and tradition make its way into the New Guard? Or can there be no middle ground? Whos right? What do you think would save the Empire? Which side do you think Yashim is most sympathetic to?
11. Did you expect the seraskier? Did anything in particular about his behavior make him seem suspicious? On p.286, he talks to Yashim about the necessity of forming an Ottoman Republic. What does he mean by that? Would such a thing have been possible? Do such ideas make him seem like a more sympathetic villain? Or is he merely a military dictator?
12. Do you think Yashim would have served under the seraskier if the coup had worked? Or was he too devoted to the Sultan? What would you have done in his place? Do you think that the Sultan deserves Yashims loyalty?
13. Do you think that Yashim will change much as a person after his affair with the Russian princess? Will he become more confident? More masculine? Will such experiences help Yashim in his suffering? Do you think that Yashim will begin to seek out these types of relationships in the future?
14. What do you think would have had to happen in order for the coup to have been successful? Would there have been any possibility of it succeeding, given that the Russians, the New Guard, and the Janissaries all had a stake in it? What would you have done if you were the Sultan? How would you balance opposing forces, beat back your enemies, and bring about some sort of consensus?
15. What strikes you as the most exotic aspect of this book? The time-period? The culture? The place? Why does the world of The Janissary Tree seem exotic to modern Western readers? Does the exoticism of The Janissary Tree make Istanbul seem more inviting or more strange? Would you be interested in visiting Istanbul based on Goodwins historical depiction of it in this book?
16. Yashim is a great cook — and all the murders in The Janissary Tree are, in effect, distorted recipes. Do you think cookery gives Yashim space to think? Is it part of his criminology, his method of detection? Or is it a means of escape, a way of relaxing? How do you think Goodwin uses food to draw us into Ottoman civilization as a whole? What kind of a cook do you think Yashim would be if this were set in contemporary America?
17. Jason Goodwin brings the city of Istanbul to vibrant life with well-researched historical detail. Would you consider Istanbul to be almost a character in the book, like Dickenss London? Or could the story happen almost anywhere? How does the setting affect the action and the atmosphere of the story? Was there anything about the city that surprised you? How do different characters — Yashim, the seraskier, the Valide — respond to the city in different ways?