July 27, 2011 / 1:03 PM / 8 years ago

Eunuch makes perfect 19th century Turkish detective

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.

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

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.


For his Janissary series Goodwin chose Istanbul as a setting because in the 1830s it was the multi-ethnic capital of an empire which is now lost but once stretched across the Middle East, the Balkans and North Africa.

“Istanbul was this incredible melting pot, which is why it is such fun to write about. It had Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Jews, Georgians, Bulgarians. It was a very cosmopolitan place, until the 1920s,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin’s interest in Istanbul began in 1990 when he worked for a publisher of guide books and walked there from Poland.

It was in Polish capital Warsaw that he met a translator of Raymond Chandler’s novels, who became the basis for Yashim’s partner, Stanislaw Palewski.

Both men are dispossessed, one of his masculinity, the other of his country. Poland had been partitioned between three of its powerful neighbors, but the Ottoman court - dubbed the Sublime Porte — still officially recognized Palewski’s homeland.

“He represents that ability to hope against hope, to have faith in his belief even though there’s no chance in 1836 that Poland will come back, but he insists on believing it,” Goodwin said.

Food plays an important part in literally recreating the flavors of the Ottoman court in Goodwin’s novels, in which he includes recipes devised in the Sultan’s kitchens, where 1,000 cooks worked over the course of more than 600 years.

“They worked to produce fabulous food for the sultan and his household of 10,000. Each cooking culture has a base thing that it does that the others don’t do. In Turkish cooking I’m always trying to discover what’s different,” he said.

“You can cook the books, the recipes work.”

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