Dubbed the Donna Leon of Istanbul by critics, British writer Barbara Nadel has built a fascinating and deeply felt series of contemporary procedurals set in the Turkish capital and featuring the chain-smoking, brandy-swilling Inspector Ikmen, husband to a strict Muslim woman (who disapproves of his drinking) and loving father of numerous bairns. Her series debut, Belshazzar’s Daughter, finds Ikmen investigating a brutal murder in Istanbul’s rundown Jewish quarter. London’s Literary Review found that first novel an “intriguing, exotic whodunit,” and the London Independent also commended that series opener, writing, “Set in Istanbul, with a battered, cynical and credible Turkish cop, and a great blooming baroque plot (ditto talent).”
Since that first novel, Nadel, a former actress, has penned eleven more in the Inspector Ikmen series (as well as four wonderfully atmospheric World War II novels in a series featuring London undertaker Francis H). Her latest, Death by Design, is out this coming December in the U.S. Nadel, winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger for Deadly Web, is hard at work on number thirteen in her powerful series, and we wish her luck with that.
Barbara, I am so pleased to finally have you on Scene of the Crime. I have been a fan for years.
First, how did you come to write about Istanbul? I can remember being overwhelmed by my first view of Aghia Sophia as a young traveller, but the city is not exactly on everyone’s major tourist itinerary.
I have been visiting the city where my books are set, İstanbul, for thirty years. I went originally as a young tourist, fascinated by the Byzantine past, the backpacker present and most of all by the late Ottoman city of melancholy palaces and sensual, doomed monarchs. I was instantly captivated and have been slavishly returning to İstanbul ever since. I don’t live in the city, but I do visit often, usually twice a year.
What things about Istanbul make it unique and a good physical setting for your books?
İstanbul is labyrinthine. It exists on levels on, above and below the ground which reflect its present, its future and its past. For a crime novelist this means that modern crimes can sometimes be given a twist of something long gone and unfamiliar. In my fifth Inspector Çetin İkmen book Harem, I connect to the Byzantine past via the discovery of a body in the ancient Yerebatan Saray (Sunken Palace or cistern) of the Emperor Justinian. The book is in no way about the Byzantine era, it is modern. But the nature of İstanbul, as a city always connected to its past, makes it possible to bring in elements of times gone by into a contemporary context.
When I wrote the first İkmen book (Belshazzar’s Daughter) I did so, in part, because I believed that İstanbul had been neglected by crime and mystery novelists for far too long. Before the first İkmen novel came out in 1999, there hadn’t been a huge amount of Istanbul fiction since Eric Ambler back in the 1950s. I did want to redress this but I also wanted to write stories too. I believe, and hope, that the location grows out of the story and the story is complimented by the location. That’s the aim.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
İstanbul is always there. It’s in the things my characters see and do, the things they eat and drink and in the uneven and chaotic roads that they travel. At times however, the location takes centre stage. When action is happening somewhere unusual, outré or significant the reader I believe, likes to know more. And so the profile of the background is raised. I may sometimes add some history or even a local legend to the description of the place. This is a conscious move on my part and one which I try to make relevant, exciting and definitely not distracting.
How does your protagonist, Çetin İkmen, interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely how does the setting affect your protagonist?
Çetin İkmen is a native Istanbullu, although like a lot of people in the city his ancestors came from elsewhere. In his case his father’s people came from the Anatolian region of Cappadocia while his mother was Albanian. He is an incredibly proud and faithful Istanbullu. He loves the city passionately and he sees the protection of it as very much a sacred duty. But he is realistic too. The traffic choked roads put his blood pressure up and the intense heat and humidity in high summer make him tetchy. İstanbul, like my own native city of London, is not an easy place. It is crowded, loud and fast and as much as it can enthral, it can also at times frustrate too. İkmen, like me, frequently opts to walk to wherever he wishes to go, not just to get a better view of the sights, but also the avoid the traffic.
Has there been any local reaction to your work?
My books are published in Turkish. They have been so for the last eight years. I’ve had generally good local reaction with great support from Turkish newspapers and periodicals. I’ve given lots of interviews. That said it has to be remembered that Turkish literary criticism is much more polite and less punitive than that in my native UK. That is not a criticism by me of anyone, it’s just a fact.
Of your Istanbul novels, do you have a favourite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
I don’t think I actually have a favourite book or scene, as such. But this bit of description from the 8th İkmen book, A Passion for Killing, is I think a good example.
“After crossing the Galata Bridge, Constable Yıldız steered the car through the steep, narrow streets of Sultanahmet and then down onto the broad Kennedy Caddesi dual carriageway that would take them, ultimately, to the airport. Even in Sergeant Ayşe Farsakoğlu’s short lifetime, this area had changed enormously. Bordering on the Sea of Marmara, districts like Kumpaki and Yedikule had once been poor places where large families with haunted eyes lived in cramped and frequently insanitary accommodation. In more recent years however, this part of the city had been given a considerable face-life and, although the poor had still not disappeared completely, they had moved on. Now many of them lived in high rise blocks out by the airport. Apparently back in the 1970s when the airport had been called Yesilkoy, after the long-since absorbed village of that name, some of the outer suburbs near the airport had been quite chic. Inspector İkmen would talk at length about the beach at the district of Ataköy, which they were now passing, where back in the 1960s he and his young friends had played at emulating Sean Connery’s James Bond. The great Scottish actor had just been in the city at that time making From Russia with Love. Now Ataköy was famous only for its shopping mall, Galleria, with its little internal skating rink.”
I have so many favourite writers! But I think that in the context of spirit of place I have to say that my two favourites and probably my greatest influences too are Lawrence Durrell and Charles Dickens. Durrell I think taught me to look at the clear and yet also almost unknowable light of the eastern Mediterranean while Dickens encouraged my love of the left field and the unexpected. I feel that because of Dickens I have permission, as it were, to express the unusual.
What’s next for your protagonist?
The next İkmen book could and should prove to be harrowing. In it he is given the task of investigating a suspected honour killing. But was the pretty, vivacious girl who was cruelly set on fire in a modest flat in the İstanbul district of Beşiktaş really a victim of her own outraged family? İkmen enters a world of family honour and passion, of rampant profiteering and heavy drug addiction in order to find out the truth.
Barbara, thanks much for a wonderful and insightful trip to Istanbul.
For more on the author Barbara Nadel, see her group blog, International Crime Authors Reality Check.