Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree

6E8B5C44-674D-4447-BAFB-868BE95A04DFI knew when I saw this on the new arrivals table at our local big box bookstore that I wanted to read and review it. Another murder mystery set in nineteenth-century Istanbul! Awesome!

Indeed, The Janissary Tree is an impressive initial foray into fiction for British author and journalist Jason Goodwin, whose previous book-length works have been non-fiction travel and history. The biosketch on the back flyleaf reveals that he studied Byzantine history at Cambridge University. One of his travel books recounts his experiences walking across Eastern Europe and into Istanbul with his wife, Kate. His history book is appropriately titled Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire.

Set in 1839, The Janissary Tree builds off an incident that took place ten years before, the so-called Auspicious Event, in which Sultan Mahmut II quelled a Janissary revolt (that some say he fomented) by having their Istanbul barracks fired upon, their property seized, and many of the survivors tracked down and executed. In the novel’s present time, four young officers in the New Guard — the military unit established to take the place of the Janissaries — have mysteriously disappeared, less than two weeks before the entire unit is scheduled for a review before the Sultan and his minions, as well as the whole resident population of Istanbul. When one of the officers turns up dead, the commander-in-chief of the New Guard calls upon Yashim Togalu to investigate.

At the same time, he gets another request for his investigative skills from his friend the Sultan’s mother. A young woman in the harem is murdered just before she is scheduled to pay her first erotic visit to Mahmut II, and the mother discovers that her jewels have been stolen. The plot unfolds around Yashim’s efforts to solve these apparently unrelated crimes, keep both ‘clients’ happy, and stay alive. Because soon enough his own life is in danger, as well.

Definitely the novel’s primary character, Yashim is a tall, slender, dark-haired good-looking Turk, of somewhat indeterminate age, but probably over thirty. He lives by himself in an old part of town, observes the practices of Islam, does his own cooking, and likes to read French novels (which he borrows from the Sultan’s mother, a native of Martinique). Yes, he is friendly with some pretty high-powered folks, although we discover later in the novel that he hasn’t actually seen the Sultan in fifteen years. The Sultan’s mother, by the way, lives in the harem with all the other womenfolk of the Sultan’s immense extended family. Strictly off limits to men, Yashim has entrée to this residence because he is a eunuch. Well, he doesn’t have any balls (as our author so delicately tells us), which makes him ‘safe’ in terms of harem etiquette. Later we discover that he can still satisfy a woman in the usual way. Never mind.

Goodwin has crafted a fast-moving tale, told almost entirely in third person by an omnipresent narrator. The text is rich with dialogue and features very short chapters, rapid scene changes, and lots of little cliff-hangers. His descriptions of Istanbul are wonderfully textured, even when they take the reader into places where no ordinary tourist would go, like the inside of a tannery or up into one of the old fire towers. His secondary characters are typically well-drawn — I especially liked Yashim’s friends Palewski, the somewhat shabby Polish ambassador, and Preen, the köçek dancer — another eunuch, by the way. His descriptions of Yashim’s meal preparation are especially tasty. Here’s an example from page 108 to whet your appetite:

When Yashim got home, he laid the fish and vegetables on the block and sliced them with a thin knife. . . . When he had threaded the pieces onto skewers, he smashed the walnuts and the garlic with the flat of a big knife and chopped, drawing together the ever-dwindling heap with the flat of his hand until the hash was so sticky he had to use the blade to scrape it off his skin. He anointed the fish with the sauce and let it lie. . . .

He laid the skewers over the dull embers and drizzled them with a string of oil. When the oil hissed on the fire, he waved the smoke with a cloth and turned the skewers, mechanically.

Shortly before the fish was ready to flake from the stick, he sliced a loaf of white bread and laid it on a plate with a small bowl of oil, some sesame seeds, and a few olives. . . .Finally, he ate, sitting in the alcove, wiping the peppers and the fish from the skewer with a round of bread.

As I have commented in other reviews of historical murder mysteries, this crossover genre presents some challenges to the author. Readers of historical fiction expect relatively long texts with lots of narrative devoted to establishing setting, character and historical detail and plots that often meander a bit. Murder mysteries, on the other hand, are typically expected to be short and tightly plotted. The Janissary Tree clocks in at 299 pages, pressing the limits of what’s preferred for the latter genre. But this length scarcely gives Goodwin enough room to give his readers the background they need to develop a full appreciation of the setting, the characters, and the historical context. This brings me to my comments on the problems I observed as I read The Janissary Tree.

I have heard that it’s not uncommon for a mystery series to reveal aspects of the main character’s identity gradually over the first few books. Most of the time, I can cope with this approach. In the case of Yashim, however, two unanswered questions really did trouble me. One has to do with his status as a eunuch. I can understand that Goodwin might want to make use of this status to enable Yashim to enter freely into the harem, a place he appears to know quite intimately. But, as far as I can tell (and this book certainly enhanced my understanding of the nuances of eunuch status!), eunuchs are made so for very specific purposes. Yashim doesn’t seem to fit any of those.

The other unanswered question has to do with Yashim’s ambiguous occupational status. The Ottoman Empire, much like the British and Austro-Hungarian Empires of this period, was characterized by vast bureaucratic structures in which every person played a strictly defined role. The dust jacket refers to him as ‘Inspector Yashim,” but he doesn’t use that title in the book, and he doesn’t work at a regular job, like Kamil Pasha, the magistrate in The Sultan’s Seal. One of his ‘clients’ refers to him as a lala, a term he translates as a guardian. But this appears to be an honorific, not a job title. Yashim is well-educated, literate and multi-lingual, and of a relatively high social class. Yet his friends occupy statuses ranging from the Sultan’s family members to humble vegetable vendors. He always seems to have enough money to spend and to share. Yet he lives very simply.

Another problem relates to Goodwin’s use of language. On the one hand, he deploys a lot of Turkish terms. I have been reading lots of fiction and non-fiction about Middle Eastern cultures for quite some time, so I know, for example, that a narghile is a water pipe and a hammam is a public bath. I was able to construe from context that seraskier was the title given to the commander-in-chief of the New Guard. But on his last trip to the market in this book, Yashim buys manti and borek for his evening meal. I had no idea until I looked those up! A glossary might be helpful. Tariq Ali included such a device in each of the novels of his Islam Quintet. Likewise a relatively simple map of Istanbul, showing the major landmarks, might be a useful aid to the reader in making sense of Yashim’s wanderings.

On the other hand, some of Goodwin’s minor characters occasionally lapse into idiom that just doesn’t fit the period-or the place. Here’s an example of this from page 139:

‘Do you know him?’
The night watchman shrugged. ‘Fings ‘appen, innit?’
He glanced over at the corpse and brightened. ‘Yer, good lad an’ all.
Did some blokes a favor. Women, y’know, and all that.’
He scratched his head.
‘Mind you, fackin’ tough.’

That rivals Charles Dickens for working class London accents! (Not that Dickens would have used any variation of the ‘F’ word, mind you!)

My final problem concerns a couple of instances of gratuitous narrative, the kind of stuff that a careful editor should catch and either remove or encourage the author to develop so that it makes sense. This is especially an issue in a mystery novel, where narrative space is at such a premium. One of these occurs during a street scene toward the end of the novel, when Goodwin gives us sketches of some of the people in the crowd, such as this one on page 267:

A little boy in a nightshirt, who would one day sit as a deputy in the Kemalist National Assembly and spend an evening drinking raki with an air ace called Baron von Richthofen, had his little hand popped out of his mother’s grip and was scooped up and passed overhead by total strangers for several minutes before he found himself being pressed to her bosom again, an experience he could later recall perfectly from other people’s memories.

I don’t mind the little boy in a nightshirt, but I am not sure why we need to know that he is destined to sit in the national assembly someday. Goodwin doesn’t routinely use this device of revealing the future in the book, so I am not sure it makes sense here.

The other instance I particularly noticed concerned the occasional, unexpected, and somewhat comical appearance of two young men from the British Embassy, Ben and Frank, who pick the wrong day to go ‘out on the town’ in what they think are native disguises. They are just a little too extraneous to the plot to make sense.

In spite of these minor quibbles, I thoroughly enjoyed The Janissary Tree and look forward to seeing more of ‘Inspector’ Yashim in the future!

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

About Donna Bird

I am a former lecturer of Sociology at the University of Southern Maine in the beautiful Portland area, where I have lived since 1992.