Category Archives: Istanbul mysteries

The Ottoman Nose

Many of you will recognise this portrait of Mehmed II, the conqueror, who beseiged and took Constantinople in 1453, bringing the story of imperial Rome to its bitter end.

Mehmed the Conqueror

Mehmed the Conqueror

It’s a portrait I love, with its rich internal frame, and the sparkling rug draped over the sill. It belongs to the National Gallery in London, where it can be seen on, I think, alternate Wednesdays in the basement store. The whole mad, scarcely credible story of this picture – its loss and rediscovery, and the curious route it took to London – can be found in Yashim Number 3, The Bellini Card, which it of course inspired. The painting itself was done by Gentile Bellini when he spent two years in Constantinople in the late 1480s, as a guest of this Renaissance prince and sultan. His invitation to stay was the result of a peace treaty between the Venetians and the Ottomans.

Is the nose credible? It’s quite a conk. I used to wonder if an over-eager restorer had perhaps given it a slight tweak.

Fast forward five centuries, to the 1930s. We are now in the princely Indian state of Hyderabad, where Azam Jar, heir to the Nizam’s throne, is married to Princess Durru Shehvar (b. 1914). Her proper, Turkish name is Hatice Hayriye Ayşe Dürrüşehvar Sultan, as she is the daughter of  Abdülmecid II, the last heir to the Ottoman throne, and the last caliph.



I don’t know who took the photo above, but you can see she was a strikingly beautiful woman. She died in London eight years ago, at the age of 92.

Cecil Beaton, the great society photographer, was clearly entranced by her. To judge by his portrait of Dürrüşehvar Sultan, he knew the Bellini, too.


I make it thirty one generations between Mehmed the Conqueror and his linear descendant, Dürrüşehvar Sultan.

That’s thirty one generations, five centuries – and one glorious nose.



New York Times Book Review: The Baklava Club

You’ll not learn from me whether Jason Goodwin followed through on his stated intention of making THE BAKLAVA CLUB (Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26) the final book in his series set in Istanbul during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. But it can certainly be said that should the author continue the series, which features a charismatic eunuch named Yashim as resident sleuth, it won’t be the same. Actually, life hasn’t been the same at Topkapi Palace since the young sultan moved his court to Besiktas and his mother, Yashim’s patron, was left in the deserted harem. Goodwin has wisely shifted focus from the moribund palace to the city streets, teeming with visitors from all over the world, including revolutionaries like the three Italian nationalists who set the incendiary plot in motion. With all the noisy guns and rockets going off, some of us may yearn for the good old harem days when poison, knives and silk garrotes were in style.


The gorgeous US edition

The gorgeous US edition



The Baklava Club

The fifth – and final? – Yashim adventure is now out in Estonia (where we held the premiere in Tallinn a week ago) – and in the English-speaking world, too.

The gorgeous US edition

I am delighted with this charming review from Huon Mallalieu in Country Life:

I have yet to visit Istanbul, but when I do it will be after reading or re-reading Jason’s Goodwin’s five Yashim books as well as his Ottoman history. He has a great gift for conjuring up the spirit of place, smells and sounds as well as sights, and Yashim, his immensely sympathetic sleuth in mid 19th century Istanbul is a thoroughly agreeable guide. As a eunuch (impotent, but not incapable, so to speak) Yashim is able to take us into harems as well as markets and mosques. His culinary skills are educational and moreish – it is good to learn that a Yashim cookery book is planned.

   Naturally Yashim is given a sidekick, but Count Palewski, ambassador for the vanished Kingdom of Poland, is no mere foil against which the hero may shine; he has his own schemes and strengths. The Baklava Club serves up the expected banquet of convoluted plots, many, but not all, deriving from the post-1815 division of Europe between autocratic reaction and liberal revolution. Matters are further complicated for both Yashim and Palewski by the involvement of beautiful young foreign women, not to mention the love of books and manuscripts.

   A little while ago Mr Goodwin was making Conan Doyle-like noises about killing off his creation. The reaction of his readers at least postponed that sad day. I hope that it is no spoiler to say that the end is not necessarily yet.


Five things you should know about The Baklava Club

  1. THE BAKLAVA CLUB is out on June 5th in the US and UK – and in Estonia on June 1st! It’s set in 1842, six years into our acquaintance with Yashim, who made his first appearance in The Janissary Tree, set in 1836. That’s basically one adventure a year.     Baklava_Conference

The story involves a bunch of young Italian revolutionaries exiled in Istanbul, who see the Pope as their enemy, the enemy of liberal nationalism. Gregory XVI came to the papal throne in 1831, and was a diehard reactionary, determined to resist the spread of modern ideas and democracy – he even took a stand against railways. And of course he wasn’t just the Pope, Vicar of Christ: in those days, he ruled over the extensive Papal States, too. He stood in the way of reform, and a united Italy.

Pope Gregory XVI

Pope Gregory XVI

  1. It contains a delectable Ottoman picnic.

    Sweet Waters of Asia

    Sweet Waters of Asia

  2. Yashim falls in love.
  3. By the early 1840s, much of Europe was controlled by autocrats, including Czar Nicholas of Russia and the Austrian emperor Ferdinand. Growing popular resentment broke out in the liberal revolutions that swept Europe in 1848.

    1848 Revolution in Berlin

    1848 Revolution in Berlin

  4. One of the characters is inspired by a minor character in Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake. And I’ll send a US or UK hardback copy of The Baklava Club to the first person to name them both!
The gorgeous US edition

The gorgeous US edition


Cover to cover









This is the UK edition. For the US we turned to Ivan Kramskoi’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman (1883). Aren’t they great?

The gorgeous US edition

The gorgeous US edition

Yashim in the Crimea

‘I was told you were in the Crimea.’

Yashim blinked. ‘I found a ship. There was nothing to detain me.’

The seraskier cocked an eyebrow. ‘You failed there, then?’

Yashim leaned forwards. ‘We failed there many years ago, efendi. There is little that can be done.’ He held the seraskier’s gaze. ‘That little, I did. I worked fast. Then I came back.’

There was nothing else to be said. The Tartar khans of the the Crimea no longer ruled the southern steppe, like little brothers to the Ottoman state. Yashim had been shaken to see Russian Cossacks riding through Crimean villages, bearing guns. Disarmed, defeated, the Tartars drank, sitting about the doors of their huts and staring listlessly at the Cossacks while their women worked in the fields. The khan himself had fretted in exile, tormented by a dream of lost gold. He had sent others to recover it, before he heard about Yashim – Yashim the guardian, the lala. In spite of Yashim’s efforts, the gold remained a dream. Perhaps there was none.

The Janissary Tree


The palace of the Tartar Khan at Bakhchisaray, Crimea

The palace of the Tartar Khan at Bakhchisaray, Crimea

 At the beginning of The Janissary Tree, Yashim has just returned to Istanbul, telling himself that ‘anything was better than seeing out the winter in that shattered palace in the Crimea, surrounded by the ghosts of fearless riders, eaten away by the cold and gloom. He had needed to come home.’

One irony that won’t be lost on anyone following recent developments in the Crimea is that Catherine the Great stole the territory illegally in the first place. By the treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, signed between the Ottomans and the Russians in 1774, Crimea was to remain in Ottoman hands. Nine years later, the Russians seized it.

The harem at Bakhsaray Palace

The harem at Bakhchisaray Palace today


The Victorian iPhone and Other Traps for Writers

Looking through an album of old photographs the other day we came across this entertaining Victorian group.

Summer tea in a Devon garden in the 1880s: photographed by Beatrice, Countess of Durham.

Summer tea in a Devon garden in the 1880s: photographed by Beatrice, Countess of Durham. 

Effie, on the right, has either just lost at racquets or merely resents her sister Mary’s engagement to Captain Pilkington (together, back left). Mrs Bulteel, the photographer’s mother, isn’t too sure of Captain Pilkington herself; either that, or she flatters herself she looks best in profile. At the centre of the group sits Bessie, powerful and relaxed, wearing a floppy hat.

Look more closely. Unfazed by the towering emotions playing out around her, Bessie seems to be chatting to someone on her mobile phone.

Nothing breaks the mood like a duff note – a glaring anachronism, a remark made in inappropriate slang, or the moment when a character’s eyes change mysteriously from blue to brown. On the other hand, it’s important not to get too bogged down in verifying details when you’re writing. After all, it’s the story that counts, isn’t it?

Copy editing – which we’re doing now with The Baklava Club, Yashim’s fifth Istanbul adventure – is the time to address those niggles. Is the name of the street spelled correctly? Do baby artichokes really come into market before the asparagus? And the guns – are they alright?

A fowling piece by the celebrated French gun-maker, Nicholas-Noël Boutet (1761-1833). It was allegedly plundered from the baggage train of Joseph Buonaparte, King of Spain, following Wellington’s victory and rout of the French during the Peninsular War at Vittoria on 21 June 1813.

A fowling piece by the celebrated French gun-maker, Nicholas-Noël Boutet (1761-1833). It was allegedly plundered from the baggage train of Joseph Buonaparte, King of Spain, following Wellington’s victory and rout of the French during the Peninsular War at Vittoria on 21 June 1813.


The guns in question are a pair of fowling pieces belonging to Count Palewski, Polish ambassador in Istanbul, and Yashim’s friend. They were made in the early years of the nineteenth century by the Parisian gunsmith Boutet: exceptionally light and very beautiful. For this, and related detail, I consulted the Royal Armouries Museum, and my thanks are due to Mark Murray-Flutter who not only provided me with gunnery jargon but ultimately re-wrote a few sentences of The Baklava Club himself.

A Rose by any other name…

…would smell as sweet. Yet Shakespeare’s rule may not apply to books. After all, who these days would write a play called Henry IV Part II?

The late Anthony Blond was a brilliant publisher. In the Seventies he found himself stuck with a rather dull-sounding book by an Austrian academic on the subject of intermediate technology in the developing world. Blond thought up a clever new title. It sold millions.


When I wrote The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels in India and China in Search of Tea, I thought the title rather marvellous. The gunpowder referred to a type of green tea, and also to the legacy of the tea trade in the Opium Wars and the imperial project in British India. The gardens in question were tea plantations. My father-in-law, himself a publisher, referred to it as a canting title, by which he meant it explained nothing to anybody. I think, after all, that he was right. My next book was called unambiguously On Foot to the Golden Horn. The subtitle repeated the main title in a form anyone might understand: A Walk to Istanbul.


Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire was inspired by an inscription on a mosque in Bursa, placed there by an early sultan who described himself as ‘Lord of the Horizons, Burgrave of the Whole World.’ It seemed to sum up the Ottoman project nicely.

The titles of my Yashim novels, thrillers or mystery stories dealing with an investigator in 19th century Istanbul, have had a mixed run. The Janissary Tree was, I think, rather brilliant. Everyone knows what a tree is, but almost nobody recognised the word janissary, so their curiosity was piqued. The publishers were less enthusiastic. In Dutch, the book was called Istanbul Fire; and in Norway, where the term janissary is actually still used – applied to some sort of school choir, I believe – they thought it would cause confusion.


The title of the second book still irritates me. The Snake Stone was meant to be called The Serpent Column: like the Janissary Tree, the Serpent Column is a feature of modern Istanbul. In the event, the publishers won – but I still don’t know why they preferred one over the other. The third novel, about the search for a lost Bellini portrait, is called The Bellini Card in, I think, the sense of playing a card, or taking a chance. Some people tell me it’s their favourite book in the Yashim pack, but I have to admit the title stinks.

Book Four deals with intrigue and superstition in the sultan’s harem. I called it An Evil Eye. Strictly speaking it should have been The Evil Eye, to match the others in the series: but then it ran the risk of sounding like a history of malocculation. Later I was told that books with the definite article always sell better than books with the indefinite article. The trumps a every time. (Reminding me of my friend the scientist Rupert Sheldrake, who regrets doing the research for his superb book Dogs that Know when their Owners are Coming Home. Cat books, he assures me, outsell dog books five to one).

The latest Yashim novel, out next Spring, has the provisional title The Latin Reader. The publishers on both sides of the Atlantic hate it. It runs a serious risk, they say, of ending up among the Dead Languages section of the bookshop. It involves a group of hapless Italian revolutionaries who have fled to Istanbul to avoid prosecution in the Papal States. Polish ambassador Palewski, who admires their youthful idealism but doubts their staying power, has an affectionate but slightly contemptuous nickname for them. So, as I edited the final manuscript, a new title sprang out at me.

The Baklava Club.


Mixed Media

Why isn’t The Janissary Tree a movie yet?

After all, the locale couldn’t be faulted, could it? Who wouldn’t want to see 19th century Istanbul brought to life, from the palace to the street?


Just imagine the costume! Imagine the décor!


Ottoman civilisation may have been crumbling, politically, but it was in full flood in the creation of beautiful and unique aesthetic, and a particular way of life.


It would be gorgeous, wouldn’t it? And new: I’m rather tired of ballrooms, and chignons, and gowns. I want to see this veiled Circassian on the move:


So let’s forget the movie for the time being, and focus on the music.

Here’s an interpretation by Greg Burrows, a New York-based percussionist. He sent to to me the other day, inspired by Yashim’s adventures in The Bellini Card.

And here, if you haven’t heard them yet, are The Bookshop Band’s takes on An Evil Eye, the latest Yashim story.



The Ottoman world is such a visual feast that I almost wish we could have illustrated detective stories again… but here, instead, are a few things that have inspired The Latin Reader, which is out later this year.


This is a beautiful writing box, from the period. In The Latin Reader, the Valide (or Queen Mother) uses a box like this to write and store her private correspondence.

ImageAnd this is a duck shoot, of course. When Polish ambassador Palewski finds a pair of good French fowling pieces in the Residency, he goes off in the very early morning to the lakes…



This is the Rome ghetto, where Jews were expected to live in the days when the Pope was a temporal as well as spiritual ruler. 



Ottoman prisons were grim… this is Piranesi’s imaginative version.