Monday, March 15, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

The Janissary Tree is the first in a series of historical mysteries featuring Inspector Yashim Togalu. The setting is Istanbul 1836, and the Ottoman Empire is fading yet holds on tenuously to its past. Istanbul of 1836 is quite exotic with open air bazaars, sordid back alleys, an opulent palace and the seraglio (Sultan's harem). The Janissaries, an elite and corrupt troop of soldiers, were crushed ten years earlier, but the gruesome murders of four of the New Guard indicate that a remnant exists and is trying to resurge. Inspector Yashim has been called by the seraskier (commander-in-chief) to investigate these barbaric acts at the same time he is called by the Sultan to investigate a seemingly unrelated murder in the harem. Because Yashim is a eunuch, he is permitted special access to areas usually restricted to men. His emasculated status also makes him a man of no consequence and this allows him to learn much in his search for answers. In this, Yashim reminds me a bit of Agatha Christie's character, Miss Marple. Miss Marple is often ignored as she quietly knits and eavesdrops on intimate conversations; no one pays any attention to the "old lady." This invisibility makes both of these characters perfect "spies." I love an underdog that uses his or her lack of status to advantage and this is what draws me to Yashim.

Jason Goodwin studied Byzantine history at Cambridge and has written books on the history of the Ottoman Empire. His extensive scholarship comes through in The Janissary Tree as he provides an experience rather than simply a read; I was able to "see" and "hear" and "smell" the setting. My only complaint is that I wanted more; I wanted to be more overwhelmed by the setting than I was.

Goodwin not only provides an exotic setting, but also some very colorful characters. One of my favorites is Palewski, the decadent Polish ambassador with no country to represent. Poland belongs to (among others) Russia in 1836, but through some quirk of law the Sultanate continues to support a Polish ambassador. The author has decided to use this bit of history to bring some unexpected humor to his novel. In one scene, Yashim is discussing with Palewski the disappearance of the murder victims. Yashim finds it odd that the victims met with one of the Russian officials shortly before disappearing. Palewski tosses out the world weary response
Meet a Russian -- disappear -- it's a common phenomenon. It happens all the time in Poland.
and Yashim replies
But why would they meet a Russian official in the first place? We're practically at war with Russia. If not today, then yesterday and probably tomorrow.

The Janissary Tree is ultimately a story about the clash between tradition and modernity and the dangerous tension that can occur as these two extremes struggle for ascendancy. While the Stambouliots struggle for their future, the politically hungry outsiders (primarily the Russians, French and British) hover like vultures as they wait for the fall of the Ottoman Empire so they can step into the ensuing chaos and gain control.

I would recommend The Janissary Tree to those who like detective stories set in an exotic setting with plenty of intrigue, deceit and corruption. It is a strong beginning to a series and an entertaining read with a bit of history tossed in.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5


  1. Wonderful review, Terri! Will have to look for this one--my interest is thoroughly piqued. Mystery & historical education all in one. Thank you.

  2. Exotic? Intrigue? Deceit? Corruption? Sounds like great combination or a great story. Thanks for the review, Terri!

  3. The setting really sounds fascinating! I've come to realise that historical mysteries are my favourite kind, so I'll definitely keep an eye out for this.

  4. I'm there! This sounds like something I would really like. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Terri!

  5. This sounds so interesting! Turkey is on my Top Five countries to see list, so I'm always on the lookout for books set there in the meantime. :)

  6. This sounds so interesting! Turkey is on my Top Five countries to see list, so I'm always on the lookout for books set there in the meantime. :)

  7. Eek-I'm sorry about double posting. Blogger told me I didn't do the word verification right.

  8. This sounds like my kind of book! I actually think I have a copy in my TBR pile. Need to pull it out and read it. Thanks for your great review, Terri.

  9. I studied the Ottomans at school and found the Janissaries really interesting so I might be tempted to give this one a go, thanks! :)