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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Belshazzar’s Daughter by Barbara Nadel

Felony & Mayhem, 448 pages, $14.95 (c1999, US ed. 2004, F&M ed. 2006)

Inspector Çetin Ikmen of the Istanbul, Turkey, police force is the grand creation of British author Barbara Nadel. There are now eighteen books in the series, but “Belshazzar’s Daughter” is the first.

Ikmen has a tolerant if irritating family. His wife is pregnant with their ninth child; his father, who lives with the family, is nosy. He has an intolerant superior at work and a young, dandified, aristocratic underling, Suleyman. Although Ikmen’s physical appearance is gnomish and unprepossessing, he is known for getting the job done.

The job this time is the murder of an old Jew in the Jewish region of Balat in Istanbul. Leonid Meyer has been burned by acid and mutilated. Why kill him? He was all but bedridden, an alcoholic, and on death’s doorstep anyway. Who could have hated him that much?

In the process of finding potential witnesses, the police stumble across British ex-pat Robert Cornelius, a teacher at a nearby language school. Author Nadel follows two storylines: Ikmen’s and Cornelius’. From Cornelius’ perspective, we see a man running from initially unspecified demons. He mindlessly performs his job. He is in an obsessive relationship with a young Turkish woman, Natalia. And he was walking in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Natalia has a strange, strange family. Her mother is shy, her grandmother is enigmatic and creepy, and the male members of the household are emasculated, disfigured, or mentally damaged. Natalia herself has odd proclivities, and she is not above using the men who fall at her feet, especially weak-willed Robert.

Ikmen and Suleyman discover that Natalia’s grandmother, Maria, knew the murder victim. But it is like extracting a particularly embedded wisdom tooth to discern what their relationship was. Between Robert’s recalcitrance and Maria’s inscrutability, Ikmen has a, pardon the expression, Byzantine path to follow to solve the murder.

Although Nadel does not live in Istanbul, she writes with an intimacy of its shadowy corridors that seems authentic. Her characters have interesting quirks and flaws and vulnerabilities. These characters are endearing, repulsive, enigmatic, and provocative. She writes with a modern sensibility but also with a venerative bow to Istanbul’s ancient history.

A well-done introduction to a distinguished series.

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