The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

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The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: There is killing inside and outside the Sultan's harem in 1830s Istanbul. Luckily, one detective can travel between the two, and can combine the two cases. The detail is rich, but the plot unexciting.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 352 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571229246

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Istanbul, 1836, is a place more akin to a fantasy novel. Such is the throbbing, sprawling city of two million inhabitants (the largest in the world at that time), such is its unique setting astride the gap between Europe and Asia, and such is the instinct for tradition.

There is the epoch-old hammam, or Turkish bath, the well-defined fashions and other religious elements. There are even guilds of soup-makers, employed to define future master soup-makers, and rally against changes in ageless recipes.

There has also been a union of soldiers, the Janissaries, who have caused no end of trouble in the past. This culminated in the 1820s, when their blackmailing fire-starting and jobs as firemen clashed for the last time. Their engagements with the Russian powers, and other enemies within the realm, meant they got too big for their boots. As a result, they've been suppressed, and a New Guard formed to replace them.

In an age when few people are looking to a more European future, and most are concerned with the past, there are hints the Janissaries have not all gone away. Four of the New Guard have been snatched, and are being found in bizarre locales and situations one by one - the first, at the bottom of a ceremonial soup-makers' tripod cauldron.

Elsewhere, there is more crime. One of the girls of the harem in the Topkapi Palace has been strangled, and the royal mother-in-law's gems have gone missing.

You wouldn't think there was any connection between the two sets of crimes, but there is, provided by Jason Goodwin in this historical novel. There is another connection too, one of the few people who could leave the city and enter the harem - the Sultan's fixer and detective, Yashim. The only reason he can walk freely about the harem, of course, is that he is a eunuch.

He soon sees the threat of the Janissaries returning with a vengeance, but there could be 50,000 re-employed soldiers. Can he use his knowledge of the historical city, his guile, his unique position on the edge of society, and threads of an ancient poem left for no real reason by the baddies on the titular tree, and avert the threat to the city?

Well yes, and no. While the detail of the city is just as intricate and believable as befits someone who has written histories of the Ottomans, the scenario is lacking. It soon becomes apparent there will be no more crime within the harem, as that plot thread practically disappears for long times. It's no spoiler to mention not a lot happens in the city - although the revelation of the corpses of the New Guard is trying to be horrific, there is no real surprise, no twist. The four get found, the plot gets resolved, the end.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the wording of this book, although a church changes name halfway through for no stated reason, and the narrator claims a bit-part character says something he never did. What's mostly wrong is the hero. He gets into chases and scrapes, but does nothing like enough pro-actively. He can't survive a fisticuffs without passing acquaintances borne of circumstance chancing by and saving him.

The setting of the harem is provided for its obvious salacious character, but the book both tries to deny the exotic sensuality, and at the same time rely on it. It can't have it both ways. A eunuch for hero should not be inviting chaste sex scenes, but we get them, unfortunately.

When I do turn to historical fiction I need it to prove this was a story put down into a historical setting that needed the story, and vice versa. Even better would be the sense, as in Patrick Suskind's Perfume for instance, that this was the ideal combination of author and story, where you can't imagine anyone more appropriate to research and tell the tale.

The research here is evidently fine, but the tale is not. Like the hero, there should really be a bit more to it.

Our thanks to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

For another story from nineteenth century Turkey you might like to read Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin.

Buy The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin at Amazon.com.


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Aylin Orbasli said:

I would like to know why the author so persistently gets all the Turkish spellings wrong? Eskesehir for Eskisehir, seraskier for serasker, Kislar for Kizlar etc. Kizlar of course means girls, so the Kizlar Agha dominates the harem, and in the correct form should be referred to as the Agha and not the Kizlar, or kislar as Goodwin insists. It is also interesting to note how all the Turkish characters have surnames, considering surnames were only introduced in the 1920s following the Republic. An important historic detail that really shouldn't have been missed by an author also claiming to write books on the history of the region.