Tag Archives: Yashim

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.

Erdogan and the Janissaries

Istanbul residents have always treasured their green spaces.


This was, once, a city of trees – ornamental cypresses in its graveyards, fruit trees in its gardens, the banks of the Bosphorus ablaze with Judas trees blossoming in the Spring. On the shore of the Golden Horn, on the Pera side, there grew an enormous plane, cut down on the sultan’s orders to clear the approach to the Galata Bridge.


Long before Istanbullu united to preserve the trees of Gezi Park and, by extension, to protest against the increasingly autocratic actions of Prime Minister Erdogan, I’d imagined a similar scene. In 1840, in The Bellini Card, Yashim encounters a crowd murmuring against the destruction of the great plane. The extract below is from that book, in which Yashim’s adventures take him from Istanbul to Venice.

Prime Minister Erdogan, unlike the sultan, is democratically elected, and seems to have done Turkey a great deal of good. All the more reason, then, to regret that he’s unwilling to enter into the kind of negotiation that a complex society like Turkey deserves. Liberty cannot mean majoritarian rule, as JS Mill pointed out, and there are voices and attitudes in Turkey’s modern society that should be handled with respect. As Norman Stone pointed out in yesterday’s Evening Standard, Erdogan is dangerously like another prime minister who after ten years in power came to believe that their will was identical to the will of the country. Mrs Thatcher’s term ended in ignominy.

One lesson that can be drawn from Ottoman history is that if the people require tribunes, so do their rulers. For many centuries the janissaries, despite their growing licentiousness and arrogance, performed that function: soldiers, who dominated civic society, could now and then express the popular mood. Their method was to overturn their great regimental cauldrons, and beat on them with spoons: the terrible sound of the janissaries in mutiny drifted from the barracks to the palace, and the sultan took note. Then in 1826 Sultan Mahmud II destroyed them, to a man.

Today, housewives in Beyoglu bang their pots and pans together at their windows. But Erdogan doesn’t seem to be listening.

Once the janissaries were eradicated, Mahmud and his successors were less beholden to the people. They furiously modernised the Ottoman Empire, running roughshod over popular disquiet, and collapsed unlamented in a puff of smoke at the end of World War I.

The Janissaries had their own tree, and their own traditions – and they, like the empire they served, are gone. Erdogan – like Mahmud II – still wants his mall.


Here’s the extract from The Bellini Card: note the detachment of troops in reserve.


Yashim walked slowly back to the Golden Horn, taking the steep and crooked steps that led from the Galata tower.

He was about halfway down when he became aware of a strange sound, an unfamiliar murmuring from the shoreline below.

From the lower steps he gazed out over a crowd gathered around the gigantic plane tree. Its branches cast a deep pool of shade over the bank of the Golden Horn, where the caique rowers liked to sit on a sweltering day, waiting for fares. The lower branches of the tree were festooned with rags. Each rag marked an event, or a wish – the birth of a child, perhaps, a successful journey or a convalescence – a habit that the Greeks had doubtless picked up from the Turks, and which satisfied everyone but the fiercest mullahs.

Yashim heard the distinct rasp of a saw; looking closer, he realised that there were men in the tree. There was a sharp crack, and one of the branches subsided to the ground: the crowd gave a low groan. He scanned the faces turned towards the great plane: Greeks, Turks, Armenians, all working men, watching the slow execution with sullen despair; some had tears running down their cheeks.

Two swarthy men in red shirts started to attack the fallen branch with axes, stripping away the smaller growth: Yashim recognised them as gypsies from the Belgrade woods. They worked swiftly, ignoring the crowd around them. Out of the corner of his eye, Yashim caught a sparkle of sunlight on metal: a detachment of mounted troops was drawn up beyond the tree. He hadn’t noticed them. Perhaps the authorities had expected trouble.

He looked carefully at the crowd. Most of them, he guessed, were watermen for whom the felling of the tree was a harbinger of bad times to come: what would become of them, when people could walk dryfoot between Pera and old Istanbul? But it was also the loss of an old friend which for centuries had sheltered their members from the heat and the rain, which had accepted their donations, brought them luck, sinking its roots deeper and deeper with the passing decades into the rich black ooze. No-one had turned up to witness the destruction of the fountain: that, in the end, was only a work of man. But the plane was a living gift from God.

A second branch, thirty feet long or more, fell with a crack and a snapping of twigs, and the crowd groaned again. For a moment it seemed as though it would surge forward: Yashim saw fists raised, and heard a shout. Someone stepped forward and spoke to the woodmen, still hacking at the first branch. They listened patiently, staring down at the tangle of twigs and branches at their feet; one of them made a gesture and both men resumed their work. The man who had interrupted them turned back and pushed his way out of the crowd.

Yashim watched him: a Greek waterman, who stumped away to his caique drawn up on the muddy shoreline and stood there, looking up at the sky.

Yashim followed him down the steps.

‘Will you take me across to Fener, my friend?’

‘I never thought I would live to see this day, efendi.’ The Greek hitched his waistband, and spat. ‘I will take you to Fener, or beyond.’

As they pulled away, Yashim turned his head and saw that the woodmen were still at work. Two more branches had fallen, and the tree looked misshapen; he could hear the rasp of the saw and the toc toc of the woodman’s axe. A team of horses were dragging away the first bare branches.

The rower pulled on his oars, muttering to himself.


The best new sleuth since Maigret

Disasters are said to come in threes, so maybe the same holds true of good things, too.

Last week, in The Week, A N Wilson chose The Janissary Tree as one of his six favourite books (between Wallace Stevens and St. Augustine’s Confessions). Wilson – whose new novel, The Potter’s Hand, is out this week – writes:

‘I am addicted to Goodwin’s detective stories set in in Istanbul in the 1840s. Yashim…is the best new sleuth since Maigret. The books evoke that great city and the plots are ingenious.’ 

Simultaneously I received my copy of the London Library magazine, with the cover story one I wrote about Ottomania, searching out the subject in the stacks of my favourite library.

On Monday I delivered a review of Otter Country by Miriam Darlington, to the Spectator, which came out on Friday.

Finally, our house was featured rather gorgeously in Ben Pentreath’s English Decoration, which is out next month – a copy arrived last week, too.

That’s four good things, you say? No, that’s one for my wife – revealing, as Ben writes, ‘the brilliance with which Kate puts together her rooms.’


Order, order

Over the course of the Istanbul series of Yashim novels it’s inevitable that new readers will begin to discover them in random order – which is why, like JK Rowling, I make sure the characters are re-introduced in each book, subtly enough (I hope) that regular readers won’t be bored.

Here is the Yashim hit-list (linked to Amazon.com) in strict order of appearance:

1. The Janissary Tree

2. The Snake Stone

3. The Bellini Card

4. An Evil Eye

A fifth, provisionally entitled The Latin Reader, is currently entertaining me each day…

Image This is Gentile Bellini’s 1501 Turkish Painter, in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston


Many readers have written to me to say that Yashim’s exploits have inspired them to visit, or re-visit, Istanbul – where the official city guides, as it happens, recommend the Yashim series to prospective tourists, as a gentle introduction to the city’s long and tumultuous story. My thanks to them all.

If any further spur was required, then Cornucopia should provide it. Cornucopia describes itself as ‘the Magazine for Connoisseurs of Turkey’, and it is that and more. It is an astonishingly beautiful magazine, published quarterly, with features on everything from old Bosphorus interiors to nomads of the steppe, from attar of roses to neolithic Anatolia, very lavishly illustrated, as the brochures would say, and intelligently written.

One way to look at what it has to offer is via this link, which begins with a review of the Yashim books by Barnaby Rogerson, author and publisher at Eland Books – of whom, and of which, more in a later post.


A browse through the website to begin with is highly recommended!

Celebrating and chronicling all things Ottoman-inspired and influenced, Cornucopia is a cross between World of Interiors and National Geographic, with a gentle Turkic twist. Tyler Brülé, The Financial Times

Lady with – ouch!

One of the joys of writing is Doing Research – ie, not actually writing at all but following a hunch.

The hunch I’ve been following up today is the story of the Czartoryski family, formerly Princes of Lithuania, whose beautiful museum in Cracow contains – among many wonderful things, including full suits of Sarmatian armour, with wings – Leonardo’s sinisterly captivating Lady with Ermine.

I first saw this painting in 1984, when Poland was under martial law; and again in 1990, when I walked through Cracow on my way to Istanbul. I saw it there a couple of years ago, too, but missed it when it came to the National Gallery last Winter. Forget the Mona Lisa’s smile – this Lady is far more mysterious!


The Czartoryski I’m interested in is Adam (1770-1861), who was at different times Russia’s foreign minister and also President of the Polish National Government  in 1830, when the Poles rose in revolt against Russia. A little like the Georgian Shevardnadze, perhaps, who was the USSR’s foreign minister and later President of independent Georgia.

Though the Prince never went to Istanbul himself, he sent Michał Czajkowski, a trusted lieutenant there in 1842 to investigate the possibility of creating a Polish enclave on the Bosphorus, where Poles exiled after the failure of their rebellion could settle.

The remarkable thing is that Czajkowski succeeded: a village called Adampol, or Adamköy, still exists about twenty miles outside Istanbul, and people there still speak Polish. What’s more, Czajkowski stayed in Turkey, converted to Islam, and served in the Ottoman army as Sadyk Pasha, in charge of a regiment of Ottoman Cossacks.

I feel sure that Ambassador Palewski, Yashim’s old friend, must have had something to do with it all…

Don’t get lost…

Last night I was invited to attend a book club which meets in the oldest continuously-inhabited house in Dorset. We gathered in the old hall, with three beautiful 13th century lancet windows overlooking the croquet lawn. It was our host’s great-grandmother, I think, who had that part of the moat filled in for croquet. How civilised! We drank Venetian wine and nibbled on baklava, and people talked about the Yashim books, politely.

Something that emerged from the talk was the glaring demand for a map to accompany the books, and maybe a cast-list for people who get lost among the unfamiliar names. Let me know what you think.

Here is a pretty clear map of Istanbul/Constantinople, showing some of the major landmarks.


As I wrote in Lords of the Horizons,  ‘Constantinople resembled the head of a dog, pointing east on a triangular peninsula. Over its nose the channel of the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus; its throat is caressed by the Sea of Marmara; and the land walls erected by Theodosius in the fifth century are slung across as a sort of huge loose collar from ear to chest…’

You can see the Phanariot Quarter – modern-day Fener – incorporating Balat, where Yashim lives. Pera, across the Golden Horn, was the ‘European’ quarter’, and Ambassador Palewski’s Residence stands a little inland from Tophane, among the foreign embassies.

The Galata Tower, one of the fire-fighter’s watch points in The Janissary Tree, is here labelled Christ Tower, and Topkapi palace, home of the sultans and their harems, is called the New Seraglio. The church of Hagia Sophia is just outside its walls. The Hippodrome, or Atmeidan, is the site of the Serpent Column in The Snake Stone.

Of the two bridges shown across the Golden Horn, only the more easterly Galata bridge existed in Yashim’s time: its construction features in An Evil Eye.

Would the real Jane Eyre please stand up?

I’ve been asked by a charity, Action Against Hunger, to help at a fundraiser in London next month. Not by handing round the canapés at dinner, nor by donating a signed set of Yashim novels, and certainly not by writing out a cheque.

Instead, we are going to auction off a character in my next Yashim story – the one provisionally entitled The Latin Reader. Guests at the gala dinner will be asked to bid to have their name – or the name of someone they love – presented as a player in the forthcoming tale of revolution and betrayal.

Here’s the link:


It’s not the first time it has been done, of course. The great Fay Weldon supposedly raised £18,000 by promising to mention the name of a famous jeweller 12 times in a novel called, guess what, The Bulgari Connection. Lee Child, the bestselling thriller writer, once told me that the name of a character in 61 Hours – the lady who’s always on the phone to Jack Reacher – was bought at a charity auction.

How far does it go? Was Mrs Dalloway in fact the wife of a wealthy industrialist? Or Ebenezer Scrooge: could he have been a generous philanthropist after all? Was Hercules Poirot an eighty-year old Belgian detective? Maybe not: maybe Agatha Christie simply hired him out, naming him after the bouncing newborn son of M and Mme Poirot, rich snail-farmers from Quimper?

My own small contribution to the genre does present me with a certain obvious challenge. Not many Ottoman pashas were known as John Smith, or Lavinia Hardy, or Ted Buxter, or whoever might be bidding on the night. Will there be any Turks at the gala? I could use an Italian, as it happens, and possibly an Irishman. But if the bid goes to, say, a Jade Hanratty or a Carol Martin…

But there you are. It’s often a good thing to write around a restriction. Who knows what role Sylvester Branksome-Pyke might play in 1840s Istanbul?

What fun to imagine…!

Getting the plot right

There are plenty of reasons why writers find it hard to get on with their books. In The Enemies of Promise, the critic Cyril Connolly famously defined one of them as The Pram in the Hall. He did not mention The Seed Catalogue, but then Connolly was not, I imagine, much of a vegetable gardener.

So here I am, ostensibly working on the plot of the fifth Yashim novel, while actually planning another plot altogether.

This our third year at Little Berwick, a hill away from the sea, and we are going for the full cornucopia. In the walled garden, where we inherited two vegetable plots, we have dug four more out of the lawn. Frost and rain, a little of both, have prepared the soil over the winter months and this weekend, trusting in the warmth of Spring, I planted four rows of broad – or fava – beans and two of an onion called Red Baron. Potatoes won’t do in the new plots for a few years yet – there’s too much eelworm under the old grass; and anyway, potato haulms aren’t beautiful. These new beds are going to be as good to look at as to eat. That’s how the Ottomans did their gardens, too, mixing vegetables with flowers.

Old beds and new

So what’s going in? Peas, of course, and shallots; leeks, cabbages and kale; yellow climbing beans – not standard runners, which set too hard and grow suddenly huge and stringy; squashes and courgettes, including the yellow sort; a dozen different sort of salad leaf, including rocket and radicchio, popping up at timely intervals between the rows; and last year’s artichokes, ready to soar this year, with their sculptural grey spikes and purple-greenish heads. I’d like a row or two of colourful chard, and spinach. Turnips for eating raw when they’re small, with a dab of cold butter; carrots for salads, and carrots for winter; beetroot – I’ve been sent a packet of white beetroot seeds by a lady who owns the late Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s bed, so I will sow those.

If I can get some glass up in time (Yashim permitting) I will dive into tomatoes and peppers and try an aubergine or two, and great pots of basil. Coriander, too – the Ottomans used much more in their cooking than the modern Turks.

Last year was superb for fruit – the old pears and apples against the walls did beautifully – but my Italian-sourced seeds were pretty poor, and the courgettes were miserable. This year I’m following with the genius loci and sticking to traditional, domestic seeds – but all ideas for Ottoman-inspired plants and vegetables would be very welcome!

Quiz competition

The US edition of An Evil Eye, the latest Yashim adventure, comes out in paperback on February 28th. To mark the event, the first person to get the right answers to three questions wins two signed copies of An Evil Eye – one for them and one, maybe, for a friend! Everyone’s welcome to have a go, wherever they are in the world.

The questions are:

1. The Valide Sultan, the sultan’s mother and Yashim’s old friend, was born and raised a long way from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Question is – where?

2. Stanislaw Palewski, the Polish ambassador, is lucky enough to have an adoring – and resourceful – housekeeper. What is her name?

3. And finally, Yashim cooks plenty of meals in the course of his investigations. Dishes like stuffed mussels, or tiny eggplants filled with spiced lamb, or vine leaves wrapped around aromatic rice, can be eaten as snacks, or meze, and have a generic name which indicates that they are stuffed. What are they called?

Just type your answers in the reply box below, and hit ‘Post Comment’. The winner will be chosen on March 1st.

Good luck!