Felony & Mayhem, 384 pages, $14.95 (c2001, F&M ed. 2009)
“Arabesk” is the third book in Barbara Nadel’s Inspector İkmen mysteries set in Istanbul, Turkey. A well-written, interesting concept and an exotic setting — it doesn’t get much better.
Çetin İkmen is a hard-working, hard-drinking, chain-smoking police detective with a large family. All of which was true until “Arabesk.” The book opens with İkmen sidelined because of an ulcer. No more drinking and no more working for a while. Instead, there’s more family time, much to İkmen’s dismay. To be clear, İkmen loves his wife and many, many children. His eldest is a doctor and two more of his children aspire to that profession as well. Another teenage son is giving him agita with his surliness, and the rest of the children are an amorphous, roiling, noisy mass. Fatma, his wife, has no sympathy for his whining.
Surely İkmen will die of boredom and/or broken eardrums. Except. Inspector Mehmet Suleyman was promoted to his current position after having served admirably as İkmen’s second. Now he has his own cases, and one in particular draws İkmen like a moth to flame. İkmen knows Suleyman needs his help because İkmen knows about the cultural diversity that makes up Turkey. Suleyman as a member of the aristocratic (if somewhat impoverished) Ottoman dynasty has inherited a lofty but narrow perspective of his fellow man, despite having been a policeman for many years. And it is İkmen’s perspective that will prove more useful.
Ruya, the wife of an Arabesk singer, has been murdered and her baby has disappeared. Erol Urfa is distraught and strangely wary. The story becomes a little clearer when it is discovered that Urfa was having an affair with a much, much older Arabesk singer, Turkey’s “darling” Tansu Hanım. The mark of an Arabesk singer is the ability to sing songs of love and hate with passion. Was passion behind Ruya’s death? Or was she merely in the way of someone who wanted a baby? And what about the high-functioning Down’s syndrome neighbor, Cengiz Tamiz? He obviously knows more about the murder than an innocent bystander would.
Barbara Nadel is a British writer who has visited Turkey many times over the last twenty-five years. Her books certainly have a ring of authenticity about them. She captures the exotic nature of a city on the cusp of both Europe and Asia, a city with a notable history of conqueror and conquered. From time under dictators of the Roman and Ottoman dynasties to its current position as a democratic society, Istanbul/Constantinople is the stuff of legends. It’s also a melting pot of cultures, tribal affiliations, and political intrigue. And, as becomes clear as the book goes along, some people can be other than they seem.
With İkmen’s help, Suleyman struggles to understand the dynamics of Tansu’s family. Her protective brothers and sister must bend to the demands and tantrums of their famous sister. As she pouts and cries for her Erol, she seems cleverly manipulative. Is she just a spoiled diva or is it a show to distract from the possibility that she is a murderer?
I love the İkmen books, even though I have bounced around without regard to series order. İkmen himself is extraordinarily perspicacious, amusing, and larger than life. Suleyman provides a good conservative counterpoint. Other series mainstays are different in background and temperament and make the series more than just a bunch of whodunnits.