Goodwin, an acclaimed travel writer and popular historian, now takes on a mystery, with mixed results.
Goodwin’s history of the Ottoman Empire (Lords of the Horizons, 1999) undoubtedly served him well in this first of a planned series of adventures featuring Inspector Yashim Togalu, a eunuch serving the sultan. The Istanbul of 1836 is an exciting blend of old-world tradition and modern innovation, but there are those who would raise a revolution to stop the clock of progress. The general of the New Guard (a modern, French-trained army) asks Yashim to discreetly uncover the whereabouts of four missing soldiers before the Sultan declares an edict of modern political reforms. Yashim has ten days, but the answers, and the soldiers’ bodies, begin to pile up quickly. Soon, Yashim discovers a plot by the Janissaries, believed to be irretrievably disbanded, to stage a coup. For hundreds of years, the religiously mystic Janissaries worked as the Empire’s protectorate, but in the end became corrupt and dangerous, and not only to the sultan but to the citizens of their own city, as they terrorized with fire. Yashim pieces together the clues with the help of his confidant, the Polish ambassador Palieski, and of his longtime friend Preen, a transvestite dancer. Also requiring Yashim’s attention is a private matter at the palace—a girl from the sultan’s harem has been killed, and priceless jewels are missing. Goodwin has the most tantalizing material to work with—the secret lives of harem girls, the sorrow of eunuchs, sufic mysticism, the bustling metropolis of 19th-century Istanbul—but somehow, what should have been conveyed vividly about this mélange of exotica is instead a bit humdrum. After attempts on his life, and an affair with the Russian ambassador’s wife, Yashim uncovers the conspiracy and saves the city. Goodwin’s mystery is subject to the charisma of the detective—whether he is quirky or clever or tough enough—but our Yashim is more enigma than is good for the plot.