Jason Goodwin is a British historian and author of the popular historical mystery novels featuring the eunuch detective Yashim and set in Istanbul during the early nineteenth century. The world of the Ottoman Empire figures importantly in the series, and Cambridge-educated Goodwin brings that world vividly to life in his novels, having already dealt with it in has narrative history, Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. The Yashim series debut, The Janissary Tree, earned Goodwin an Edgar Award for the Best Novel in 2007.
Second in the series, The Snake Stone, won critical praise from many quarters. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio noted: “When you read a historical mystery by Jason Goodwin, you take a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth.” The Washington Post also commended that series addition, observing: “The real pleasure of The Snake Stone lies in its powerful evocation of the cultural melting pot that was nineteenth-century Istanbul. . . . Goodwin’s sharp eye combines with a poetic style to bring the city vividly to life.” Book three in the series, The Bellini Card, prompted laudatory words from Publishers Weekly: “Goodwin skillfully blends deduction, action sequences and period color.” The fourth series installment, An Evil Eye, is just out, and Publishers Weekly dubbed it “masterful.”
Jason, it is a real pleasure to finally have you on Scene of the Crime. I have been a fan of your work since the series opener. Maybe we could open this interview with some discussion of your connection to Istanbul/Constantinople.
Twenty years ago, when the countries of communist eastern Europe overthrew their leaders, I decided to explore them – on foot. We walked, from Gdansk in Poland, all the way south to Istanbul.
We were months on the road, staying with farmers and priests each night, and gradually we felt the pull of The City. Istanbul was the great gateway between the continents, the capital of the Greek Orthodox world, the centre of trade and faith and thought in the region. We felt it as soon as we reached Hungary – which was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century. There was more colour, and better coffee.
I became fascinated by the city, and eventually I wrote a book about Ottoman history, Lords of the Horizons.
What things about historic Istanbul make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Istanbul – Constantinople – has often been called ‘the capital of the world’. Its physical setting is extraordinary, raised on hills above the Bosphorus, the deep channel that divides Asia from Europe, and links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Huge ships slide through the city, whose hills are crowned with mosques and minarets. For almost 2000 years, the city has been a meeting-place, a crossing point, and a melting pot.
It’s the perfect place to find a body…
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Considering how old, how tangled, how ethnically and religiously diverse Istanbul is – and the scale of its historical monuments and districts – the city was bound to become a ‘character’ in the books. There are so many different ways to approach Istanbul: every street wants to tell a story.
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? Are you conscious of referring to your specific city or locale as you write?
Absolutely. In The Bellini Card I took my characters to Venice, because Venice is Istanbul’s alter ego, a sort of watery reflection of Constantinople. I really enjoyed contrasting the two cities, whose histories are different, but entwined.
How does Yashim 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 Yashim?
Yashim, my investigator, works for the sultan and the high officials of the Ottoman Empire. But when I chose the 1830s as my period, I had a problem: a male investigator would be unable to talk to half the people in Istanbul – all the women, secluded in their harems, would be off-limits.
So I made the cruelest cut, and turned Yashim into a eunuch. Istanbul had eunuchs at that time, so he blended perfectly with the atmosphere of the city. He sort of emerged from it, really.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
The series has been translated into more than 40 languages, including languages once spoken in the Ottoman Empire. So not only Turkish but Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Hungarian etc. Everyone is curious to see how I have dealt with them – and I think they’ve been satisfied. The reaction from Turkish readers has been one of delighted astonishment: I’m told the recreation of the past is very convincing.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
In The Bellini Card I sent a Venetian Commissario into a cafe for a ‘coretto’, which is something even stronger than an espresso. So I thought.
A charming Venetian gentleman wrote to me, pointing it out (among other blunders, I’m afraid). A ‘cafe coretto’ is a coffee. A coretto on its own is a small male choir. So it was an odd choice for the Commissario.
Of the Yashim novels, do you have a favorite 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?
This is a passage from The Janissary Tree:
“Yashim arrived early at the little restaurant beneath Galata Point and chose a quiet alcove which overlooked the channel of the Bosphorus. From where he sat he could watch the waterway he loved so much, the narrow sheet of gunmetal which had made Istanbul what it was: the junction of Europe and Asia, the pathway from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, the great entrepot of world trade from ancient times to the present day.
“The water was as ever thick with shipping. A mountain of white sails rose above the deck of an Ottoman frigate, tacking up the straits. A shoal of fishing smacks, broad beamed and single masted, held out under an easterly wind for the Sea of Marmora. A customs boat swept past on its long red oars like a scurrying water-beetle. There were ferries, and skiffs, and overladen barges; lateen-rigged cutters from the Black Sea coast, house-boats moored by the crowded entrance to the Golden Horn. Across the jostling waterway, Yashim could just make out Scutari on the opposite shore, the beginning of Asia.
“The Greeks had called Scutari Chalcydon, the city of the blind. In founding the city, the colonists had ignored the perfect natural setting across the water, where centuries later Constantine was to turn the small town of Byzantium into a great imperial city which bore his name. For a thousand years it was the capital of the Roman Empire in the east, until that empire had shrunk to a sliver of land around the city. Ever since the Conquest in 1453, the city had been known as Istanbul, the capital of the Turkish Ottoman empire. It was still the biggest city in the world.
“Fifteen hundred years of grandeur. Fifteen hundred years of power. Fifteen centuries of corruption, coups and compromises. A city of mosques, churches, synagogues; of markets and emporia; of tradesmen, soldiers, beggars. The city to beat all cities, overcrowded, greedy.
Perhaps, Yashim sometimes reflected, the Chalcydonians hadn’t been so blind, after all.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
My all time favourite has to be Raymond Chandler. Chandler created Los Angeles for me – the sickly hue of decay, money in the heat, mobsters and hustlers and all the ugliness of modern American sprawl.
Of course when I first visited LA, it wasn’t like that at all – it was rather delightful. But that is beside the point!
Before Chandler, there was Dickens, who also created a city – Victorian, industrial London.
And Graham Greene. I love Graham Greene: locations, and ambiguities.
What’s next for Yashim?
He’s off to Georgia, I think – Georgia on the Black Sea, the Caucasus. He’s going to find out who did for him all those years ago….
Jason, thanks much for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.