Novelist Highlights The Rich Flavor Of Old Istanbul
Historian-turned-mystery-writer Jason Goodwin steps through a centuries' old archway into the carnival-like atmosphere of Istanbul's grand bazaar, and his eyes light up. Sizing up the crowds of Turks and foreign tourists who surge past the bazaar's hundreds of shops, Goodwin declares the setting perfect for a murder.
"Imagine this place — just complete, pullulating with trade — suddenly has to freeze," Goodwin says.
The bazaar isn't the only local institution that inspires Goodwin's delightfully sinister imagination. In his novel, The Snake Stone, he calls the evening call to prayer — a haunting chant that erupts at sunset from many of the domed mosques and minarets that make up the city's striking skyline — "a good time to kick a man to death in the street."
If it all sounds rather foreboding, it's helpful to remember that the Istanbul Goodwin writes about is not the booming megalopolis of modern-day Turkey. Instead, he imagines the city as it was in the 19th century, when it was the capital of the vast Ottoman Empire. It's a place he describes in his book, The Janissary Tree, as "a city of mosques, churches, synagogues, of markets and emporia, of tradesmen, soldiers, beggars, the city to beat all cities, over-crowded and greedy."
The characters that inhabit Goodwin's Istanbul include a sultan who slowly drinks himself to death, an impoverished Polish ambassador whose country has been carved up by Russia and Germany, and a crafty Greek bookseller who doesn't know how to read.
The hero among this cast is a soft-spoken palace detective named Yashim, who also happens to be a eunuch. Goodwin describes the character as a "tangent to society ... someone who belongs to the society that he patrols but at the same time [is] different."
Because of his unusual condition — the origins of which have yet to be explained — Yashim happens to be the only person in Istanbul allowed to investigate murders in that most forbidden of places: the Sultan's harem.
"I'm dealing with a very traditional, essentially Muslim society in 19th century Istanbul," says Goodwin of his detective. "A eunuch is the only character who can really get around."
Many of the places where Yashim's adventures take place still exist today. On a recent tour, Goodwin brings a visitor to the Yerebatan Cistern, an ancient underground structure that was used to store water in Byzantine times. It is here, in the cold, dark waters of this 6th century cistern, that the eunuch detective ends up battling a murderous enemy.
Just a few minutes' walk from the cistern, Goodwin stops into another of his favorite Istanbul landmarks, the famous Egyptian spice market, where shopkeepers hawk exotic flavors to passing visitors, much as they probably did more than a century ago.
When not solving crimes and chasing murderers down Istanbul's winding streets, Yashim — like the author himself — spends a lot of time cooking.
"He's a eunuch," explains Goodwin, "so there are certain things he doesn't derive quite so much pleasure from, as perhaps our listeners would."
Jokes aside, there's another reason Goodwin's hero nurtures a passion for cooking: Food allows the author to give his readers a more complete sense of the Ottoman world.
Goodwin discusses the importance of food in his fiction while preparing an Ottoman dish called imam bayildi, or "the imam swoons." It's a mixture of eggplants, garlic, onions and lots of olive oil.
"One of the obvious ways into [the culture] is what did it taste like? What did they eat?" Goodwin says.
With this writer, the Ottoman world tastes delicious.
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