The Snake Stone

The Snake Stone by Jason Goodwin.  Although I love the lush green countrysides of Ireland, the crowds of Rome and Athens, and the magnificent cities of ancient Egypt, my favorite location for historical mysteries is what is now known as Istanbul.  Whether it’s Michael Pearce’s “Dead Man in Istanbul” 1906, Alan Gordon’s fools solving a “Death in the Venetian Quarter” of 1204 Constantinople or Mary Reed and Eric Mayer describing John the Eunuch’s countless cases in 6th century Byzantium, this multicultural city serves as a perfect location.  The mix of Greek and Roman and Ottoman empires and Christian and Muslim religions provides countless opportunities for long-held grudges, secret societies, revenge, and murder.  It’s a city full of passionate people, loyal to their families, their emperor, their sultan, but also circumspect when dealing with authority, knowing that any misspoken word could be dangerous.  This makes solving cases for investigators of any era more challenging, forcing them to interpret nuances of speech and subtle movements and delve more carefully into the motives and the mindset of the criminals they seek.

Goodwin understands this city’s complexity when he writes about the “layers of history that had built up on the shores of the Bosphorus, at the point where Asia and Europe met, and the Black Sea flowed into the Mediterranean.”  Goodwin won the 2007 Edgar Award for Best Novel for The Janissary Tree, which introduced Yashim Togalu, investigator at the sultan’s palace, and his second tale in this series is just as good.  The arrival of Maximilien Lefevre, a French archaeologist, in 1830s Istanbul and his search for ancient relics stirs up trouble in several parts of the city, especially when his mutilated body appears outside the French embassy.  As one of the last men to see him alive, and therefore under suspicion himself, Yashim feels obligated to find the killer and to determine if this death is related to a series of attacks on others throughout the city.  With the assistance of his long-time friend, the Polish ambassador, and the valide, mother of the nearly-dead sultan, Yashim must determine whether it was something from the Frenchman’s past or something he was on the verge of unearthing that gave someone cause to see him dead.  Like the onions that Yashim uses in the meals he lovingly prepares, this mystery has many layers which need to be peeled before the truth can be revealed.  Similarly, Goodwin’s writing has many layers as well.  He captures the urgency of the case, the heat and bustle of the bazaars, the quiet of the palace and the darkness of the city’s underground and underbelly.

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