Eunuch makes perfect 19th century Turkish detective

Wed Jul 27, 2011 8:57am EDT
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By Martin Roberts

GIJON, Spain (Reuters Life!) - Only a eunuch could have worked as a detective in 1830s Istanbul at the heart of the then-Ottoman Empire, says British author Jason Goodwin.

In "The Janissary Tree," the first in a four-book series, Goodwin's detective Yashim has to investigate the disappearance of four palace guards, or "janissaries," as well as a robbery and murder in the harem at the sultan's palace.

"It was a very practical decision. He had to be a eunuch, otherwise he could only talk to men," Goodwin told journalists at the Semana Negra book fair in Spain, which is visited by a million people every year.

Goodwin noted that like Yashim, many classic fictional detectives were celibates or loners, including Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.

"Then there's my favorite one, Philip Marlowe from the Raymond Chandler series, the classic hard-boiled detective. But he never gets the girl, either," he added. "So there's an argument that in order to be great detectives, they have to be eunuchs. In the Byzantine Empire they called eunuchs the perfect servants; they had no family ambitions."

Having a eunuch as a detective also has its disadvantages, however. "In America they said this will never be a film. Who's going to be the eunuch, who's going to play your star?" Goodwin said.

"The Janissary Tree" won the 2007 Edgar Award for crime fiction. Goodwin has published three other books in his Janissary series, the latest of which -- "An Evil Eye" -- came out earlier this month in Britain.

He has also written a non-fictional history of the Ottoman Empire and plans a fifth novel that is to be set in Georgia.   Continued...

<p>Big cardboard books welcome visitors at the entrance of the XXIV Semana Negra (Noir Week) book fair in the northern Spanish town of Gijon July 25, 2011. REUTERS/Eloy Alonso</p>