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Friday, November 27, 2015

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

Picador, 320 pages, $16 (c2006)

British author Jason Goodwin is fascinated by Turkey, Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire. He wrote a nonfiction book of its history and a travel book of his journey to Istanbul. Then he created a memorable mystery series set in mid-1830s Istanbul with a eunuch for his hero.

At this point, Goodwin is up to the fifth book in the Investigator Yashim series, but this is a review of his first award-winning entry.

Istanbul stands (geographically and historically) at the junction of Europe and Asia and their varied cultures. As modern-day Turkey’s seat of power, it is fascinating for its continuous adoption and melding of Western and Eastern politics, religions, and rituals. Its history is one of the oldest; its obeisance to and conquest of the major empires of the time give it a rich texture. It has been the seat of power for a world-arching empire.

At the time “The Janissary Tree” opens, the sultan in residence in Istanbul is westernizing his army. Adopting the military tactics of the French (having first relieved itself of Napoleon), the British, and the Russians, Istanbul is attempting to enter the modern world. (As one character memorably points out, to anchor us in time, the Declaration of Independence is only sixty years old.) Ten years earlier, a rout was carried out against the Janissaries, the former military component of the Turkish empire. They were far too independent, cultish, and morally corrupt. (That is not to say that the Byzantine turnings of the Sultan’s retainers, advisors, and family do not stem from the same flaws.)

Investigator Yashim is a palace employee, as it were, as were most of the eunuchs of the time. As is stereotypically portrayed, quite a few are guards of the sultan’s harem, but others are administrators and trusted servants. Eunuchs, perforce, do not suffer from the same desires and failings as other men — or so the thought goes — and are more reliable and trustworthy.

As Goodwin depicts Yashim — and as Wikipedia will describe to you, if you care to visit it — not having sexual desires depends on when a eunuch is castrated. Too much information, you say? Then turn away from this series, because Goodwin gracefully deals with this issue. And having a eunuch as a central character, Goodwin is obligated to deal with Yashim’s most obvious and curious issue.

To the book. Four outstanding cadets of the new army have disappeared. The head of the military wants Yashim to find them. Rather, three of them are missing; one has been found in a large cooking pot, dead. Also, the sultan’s mother is missing some jewels given to her by Napoleon. Then strange rumors of a Janissary resurgence are heard and mysterious fires are set in the city. All fall on Yashim’s shoulders to solve. He is the appointed center of the maelstrom.

Along with his old friends Palewski, the devalued Polish ambassador, and Preen, a transsexual entertainer, and his new friend, Eslek, an open market worker and handy-to-know person, Yashim begins to unravel the obscure threads of the various problems.

I loved the hardworking historical perspective. Goodwin knows a lot and attempts to recreate the very bricks and plaster of the time. He gives us a chance to replace Disney’s “Aladdin” (I know that’s not Istanbul, don’t write me; you know what I mean) with the fervor and exotica of a dying culture attempting to recreate itself.

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