Review of The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

Genre: Historical mystery thriller
Year of publication: 2006
No. in series: 1
Series detective: Yashim Togalu
Type of investigator: Private investigator
Setting & time: Istanbul, Turkey, 1830s

Yashim Togulu, the 19th century equivalent of a modern private investigator/spy, is approached by the head of the Turkish Sultan’s new modernised army in Istanbul and asked to investigate the kidnapping of four young officers and the murder of one of them, presumably by men belonging to what remains of the old army, the dreaded Janissaries. They had been forcibly disbanded 10 years earlier, but now seem to be planning a coup. At the same time the Validé, the Sultan’s mother, summons Yashim and asks him to find out who stole her jewels and murdered a young concubine in the harem.
What follows is a thriller full of mysterious happenings, gruesome deaths, fire, chases and several near-death experiences for Yashim.

This is a well-written and -plotted mystery thriller, with interesting twists and terrific descriptions of 19th century Istanbul and Turkish society of that time. The only gripe I have with it is that Yashim, the eunuch hero, is a bit too perfect. He is good looking, intelligent, resourceful, a good fighter, great cook and expert lover (see note), plus being extraordinarily lucky. He is, in fact, the 19th century incarnation of James Bond. Making him a eunuch inserts something for him to be unhappy about, thus lessening the dazzling perfection of his character, but it also makes him a more perfect action hero as it enables him to enter the Sultan’s harem to investigate crimes in there, and also to safely make love to women without fear of getting them pregnant, allowing the author to insert plenty of sex. A stroke of genius, really.

Rating: A very atmospheric and thrilling mystery. 3+ stars.

Note: If you’re wondering how Yashim can make love: it is not implicitly stated in the book that erections are involved. Yashim could just have really, really good manual and oral skills, although how he manages the latter with a moustache, I couldn’t say.

Awards and nominations:
2007 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel
2007 Macavity Award for Best Novel, finalist


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