The Janissary tree

 

Janissary cover

As a fictional spinoff from my taste for Bektashi–Alevi rituals, Turkish crime thrillers are a substantial genre, for whose Ottoman branch I enjoyed

a most entertaining romp through late Ottoman history.

First in a series (gaily described by Marilyn Stasio as “a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth”) starring Yashim the eunuch, the novel is set in 1836 Constantinople, ten years after the “Auspicious Event” that seemed to rid the empire of the overweening Janissaries:

Once the Ottoman Empire’s crack troops, the Janissaries had degenerated—or evolved, if you like—into an armed mafia, terrorising sultans, swaggering through the streets of Istanbul, rioting, fire-raising, thieving and extorting with impunity. Outgunned and outdrilled by the armies of the west, stubbornly they had clung to the traditions of their forefathers, contemptuous of innovation, despising the common soldiers of the enemy and rejecting every lesson the battlefield could teach, for fear of their grip loosening. For decades they had held the empire to ransom.

Yashim foils a plot threatening a vengeful revival, as he goes in search of mysterious, elusive tekke Sufi lodges. The cast features grisly ritual murders, harem plots, an Albanian soup-master, a transvestite entertainer, a Polish ambassador, fire-tower watchmen, and an archetypal Russian femme fatale.

The street scenes are evocative:

A troupe of jugglers and acrobats, six men and two women, took up a position near the cypress tree, squatting on their haunches, waiting for light and crowds. Between them they had set a big basket with a lid, and Murad Eslek spent a while watching them from a corner of the alley behind the city walls until he had seen that the basket really did contain bats, balls, and other paraphernalia of their trade. Then he moved on, eyeing up the other quacks and entertainers who had crowded in for the Friday market: the Kurdish story teller in a patchwork coat; the Bulgarian fire-eater, bald as an egg; a number of bands—Balkan pipers, Anatolian string players; a pair of sinuous and silent Africans, carefully dotting a blanket spread on the ground with charms and remedies; a row of gypsy silversmiths with tiny anvils and a supply of coins wrapped in pieces of soft leather, who were already at work, snipping the coins and beating out tiny rings and bracelets.

The climax comes with a splendidly tense cinematic scene in the tanneries.

The first thing Yashim noticed, after the stench he was forced to suck down into his heaving chest, was the light.

It rose from eery columns from the vats into which, across an area of several acres, the animal skins were lowered for boiling and dyeing. Against a forest of flickering torches, each vat threw out a spume of coloured vapour, red, yellow, and indigo blending and slowly dissolving into the darkness of the night air. The air stank of fat, and burned hair, and worst of all the overreaching odour of dog shit used to tan the leather. A vision of hell.

See also crime thrillers from China and Germany; Weimar Berlin, Stasi,Russia, and Hungary, and the Navajo.

 

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