- The Snake Stone
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp.
A Eunuch Investigator In Nineteenth-Century Istanbul
Our current crop of writers is a brave lot. There is Sarah Waters, who trots out “lesbo-Victorian romps” with Dickensian skillfulness. There is Stef Penney who won the Costa award for her atmospheric first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, which was set in the wilderness of nineteenth-century Canada. That when she never set foot on the Canadian landmass.
And there is Jason Goodwin. Goodwin situates his tales of the eunuch investigator, Yashim Togalu, in nineteenth-century Istanbul. Yes, you heard that right. And they are no ordinary tales: they are mystery novels, oozing with murderous intrigue.
Goodwin sets them up firmly in the city already popularized by the sexually charged metropolis of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red. And his stories are deeply imagined, evoking the city, its sultan and the courtesans, its “muezzins in their minarets”, the Bosphorus flowing though their midst like a dark stain.
In 2006 came out The Janissary Tree, the first in a series of books which track Yashim as he goes around solving murder cases and throwing a light to the darkness. Yashim is a unique investigator, as removed from the classical western tradition of the Holmesian detective as one can get.
For one, he is a eunuch which is an added advantage for his profession, for it affords him unfettered access to the sultan’s harems, given that the women have nothing to be afraid of in his presence. The Janissary Tree was a murder mystery in which the janissaries, “new soldiers” whose force was disbanded by the sultan, were involved in a plot as thick as the aromas that waft in the alleys that Yashim traverses.
Goodwin now returns with another mystery, a tale as exotic as the first one, delicious in its evocation of the last days of the Ottoman dynasty. Here, however, the territory is dangerously personal. Max Lefevre, a French archaeologist with a rather shady reputation, is in Istanbul with a text that ostensibly holds the key to an ancient Byzantine treasure. Lefevre knows that his possession is a source of danger to his life, and he seeks Yashim’s help to plot an escape.
However, within hours of his supposed departure, Lefevre’s mutilated body is discovered and the needle of suspicion now points starkly at Yashim himself, who was the sole person in Lefevre’s company prior to his death. Yashim realizes that it is imperative for him to clear his name of any wrongdoing if he is to maintain his vaunted status inside the palace and also continue his profession.
Goodwin’s breath of knowledge frequently shines through in this work. He doffs his hat to Petrus Gyllius, the sixteenth century traveler who wrote extensively on Constantinople. Yashim is shown reading his work for similarities between the Constantinople of the past and the Istanbul of the present:
“He turned the page. Gyllius described the layout of the city and its walls, discussing Aya Sofya in detail, with reference to ancient sources. There were a few remarks about the Hippodrome, and the Serpent Column: Yashim made a penciled note beside them, intending to check against Lefevre’s copy.”
For readers looking for sexual bewilderment given the ambiguous status of the protagonist, there is disappointment in store: Yashim is unabashedly straight. There are mouth-watering bits of conversation between him and Amélie, Lefevre’s widow, who plays a decisive role in cracking the mystery. Yashim thinks she is “fresh, with a face that told him everything he wanted to know.”
The Snake Stone boasts a sprawling cast of characters, many of who make occasional appearances in the list of suspects. There is Dr. Millingen, inept medical officer, who is famed for his fatal association with Lord Byron. He seems to be making little headway in the cure of the sultan.
Even as a standalone piece of art, The Snake Stone retains the reader’s interest for the sureness of touch with which Goodwin wields the pen. Look at how he conjures the sultan contemplating his imminent death:
“The curtains of muslin and silk brushed together, stirred like a breath by the night air. Sometimes he could see a tiny diadem of stars through a chink close up by the rail and it came and went, came and went, the way people did when you were dying, looking in to observe the progress of death, to render a report on the invisible struggle; all that was left.”
As the mystery gains strength, so also the enigma of Istanbul. Familiar places acquire a menacing sheen and the conclusion races forth in an explosion of pellucid satisfaction. Indeed, the mystery morphs into an historical inquiry: of the presence of secret societies that have defied the inexorable march of time. The nostalgia for a bygone age seeps through the pages as the book combines literary acuity and mystical exoticism with formidable skill.