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Goodwin, Jason - 'The Snake Stone'
Paperback: 320 pages (May 2008) Publisher: Faber and Faber ISBN: 0571236472

Istanbul 1838. The Sultan lies dying in his palace at Besitkas, and Maximilien Lefevre, a French archaeologist, arrives in the city perhaps to seek lost Byzantine treasure. The mysterious Madame Mavrogodarto asks Yashim the Eunuch, the Ottoman detective, to investigate the motives of Lefevre, who had asked her husband for a loan.

Yashim and his friend Palewski, the Polish ambassador, are a strange combination - the man who is not quite a man and the ambassador not quite an ambassador as he is without a country following the dismemberment of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria.

They dined with the annoying and arrogant Lefevre and were hoping they had seen the last of him. When Lefevre returns to Yashim's house distressed and desperate to leave Istanbul, Yashim arranges for his passage out of the city. The next day when Lefevre's mutilated body is found near the French embassy, Yashim becomes a suspect in his murder. What connection does Lefevre's murder have to the secret Greek society, the Hetira?

A vegetable seller, George, has been attacked, and an Albanian waterman Enver Xani is missing. Are they involved in some way? Was Lefevre seeking old books, old treasure or the much more dangerous - old ideas, and is the Englishman Dr Millingen involved in a plot to restore the Byzantine Empire? What secrets lie deep under the city guarded by the watermen? Yashim investigates among the teeming population of a truly multicultural city of Turks, Greeks, Albanians, Jews, Bulgars and Franks and faces up to his limitations when he meets the beautiful and determined Amelie Lefevre.

Jason Goodwin, with the second novel in the Yashim Tolagu the Ottoman detective series, once again is successful in this the most difficult subgenre of crime fiction. The first in the series THE JANISSARY TREE won an Edgar, and this is an impressively complex and engrossing sequel. I think historical crime fiction is so difficult to pull off, because not only do you have to produce the normal essentials of crime fiction: plot, character, good narrative mystery and atmosphere, but also you really have to understand the historical background of your chosen period. Jason Goodwin studied Byzantine History at Cambridge, and is the author of LORDS OF THE HORIZON: A HISTORY OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE and ON FOOT TO THE GOLDEN HORN: A WALK TO ISTANBUL, so we know we are in expert hands.

Jason Goodwin brings alive a lost world as we learn a lot about the "Sick man of Europe", Ottoman cookery and the tensions between Islam and Orthodox Christianity, but without being swamped with dates and too much indigestible information. I am not sure if the main protagonist in this story is Yashim, or the fascinating city with three historical identities: Constantinople, Byzantium, and Istanbul. The fact that the decaying Ottoman Empire survived through the Crimean War, Russo-Turkish Wars, and Balkan Wars is a tribute to its resilience, and its people. The consequences of the destruction of this multicultural society after the Great War are with us today, and that resonates in Goodwin's obvious affection for the Ottomans.

Yashim with his love of books, his ability to cook a delicious sounding meal with few ingredients, and his interesting historical setting is a welcome addition to the crime fiction scene. The story is well written with plenty of excitement, action, tension, red herrings, surprises and a neat plot-twist in the tail. We also learn a little bit about Byron and the Greek War of Independence.

History and mystery, when done as well as this, are an unbeatable combination.

Norman Price, England
May 2008

Norman blogs at
Crime Scraps.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 18/05/2008 16:35