This is my review of The Janissary Tree (Yashim the Ottoman Detective) by Jason Goodwin.
Like many detectives, Yashim is a loner, but it is for the unusual reason that he is a eunuch and therefore somewhat set apart from others and so better-placed to observe events. This makes him invaluable to his employer, the Sultan in 1830s Istanbul, even if the ruler ironically does not fully appreciate his skills.
In the first of what has turned out to be a successful series, Yashim is called upon to solve the murder of a concubine in the closed, sinister world of the harem, but is under greater pressure to investigate the disappearance and bizarre sequential murders of four young army officers.
At first, I was drawn in by the vivid images of Istanbul, by the appealing personality of Yashim, understandably bitter over his state, yet maintaining a wry sense of humour combined with a penchant for cooking mouth-watering dishes. The snippets of history concerning past sultans, the fall of Istanbul to the Turks and the bloody demise of the once influential yet corrupt military Janissaries are quite interesting.
Yet I soon became irritated by the short sound-bite chapters (132 in 329 pages) which seemed to be a device to pad out with digressions a thin plot, often making it quite tortuous and hard to follow in the process. On page 164, I became so disengaged by a chain of implausible dramatic events that I gave up on the book for a while. No serious spoilers intended, but apart from the fact that the author’s descriptions are often quite complicated and unclear, I couldn’t accept the idea of Yashim stopping the advance of a fire by demolishing a house it would seem virtually single-handed – surely the flames would leap across the gap, or simply blast down the other side of the street? Neither could I accept his ability to chase an assassin through crowded alleys on the basis of “magic……..an unreasoned and unexamined knowledge”. While I’m at it, some of the dialogue grated on me in sounding far too modern – more suited to metrosexuals meeting in a London wine bar – not to mention describing a tanning yard as the size of a football field.
When I returned to the novel for the sake of a book group, I enjoyed the second half more, perhaps because the end was in sight. The denouement is quite neat, but some key points seem unduly rushed, and I feel the novel as a whole could have been developed better. I do not plan to spend more time reading other books in the series, yet it is clearly quite popular.