At Cambridge, Jason Goodwin studied Byzantine history. After publishing The Gunpowder Gardens, Goodwin walked from Poland to Istanbul and wrote about the journey in On Foot to the Golden Horn. His next nonfiction book was Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. Following his success in nonfiction, Goodwin embarked on writing historical mysteries set in 19th century Istanbul and featuring Yashim as an amateur detective.
The Janissary Tree, the first book in the mystery series, won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2007. The other books in the series include The Snake Stone, The Bellini Card, An Evil Eye, and The Baklava Club. Because Yashim is an excellent cook and also enjoys eating in the cafés in Istanbul, Goodwin has now written a cookbook that includes recipes for dishes mentioned in the mysteries: Yashim Cooks Istanbul. Below, see a picture of Fiery Eggs and Peppers, a recipe from Yashim Cooks Istanbul. The next picture is of the spice bazaar.
Goodwin is also a member of the Guild of Food Writers. His interest in the food of Istanbul, a melting pot of cultures and traditions, is evident in his writing. Learn more about Goodwin on his Web site: http://jasongoodwin.info/. On the site, readers can find Goodwin’s blog as well. Here is an example of one blog post: http://jasongoodwin.info/food/a-day-with-the-guild/.
The focus of the review today is The Snake Stone. Each semester, I choose a theme and then find books to fit that theme – books that will create interest and discussion in the book club, not merely because they fit the theme. They must have some substance. The Snake Stone fits that bill because of the culture and history found in the story. While the mystery in the story is fun, it does not have to lead the discussion. The Times, London, praises Yashim and The Snake Stone as “the captivating return of Yashim, the eunuch investigator from the intelligent, elliptical and beguilingly written bestseller The Janissary Tree.”
The Snake Stone involves Maximilien Lefevre, who says he is a French archaeologist, who enters Istanbul to locate lost treasures from the Byzantine era. Yashim meets Lefevre by accident when Lefevre invites himself to dinner at Yashim’s along with Yashim’s friend Stanislaw Palewski, the Polish Ambassador. Yashim and Stanislaw are put off by Lefevre and do not plan to see him again. Of course, the readers surmise that will not the be the case.
A short time later, Lefevre knocks on Yashim’s door again and is quite agitated and acts frightened. Yashim agrees to keep Lefevre safe and to find him passage to France. Yashim keeps his word and locates a ship which will take Lafevre out of Istanbul and on to France, though not directly. Yashim sees Lefevre into a small boat that will take him to the ship. At that point, Yashim thinks he has seen and heard the last of Lafevre.
Unfortunately, Yashim soon learns that Lafevre is dead and that his body has been mutilated by the roving dogs of Istanbul. Yashim finds that complicating the mystery of Lafevre’s death is a mystery surrounding the Armenians who are the watermen of Istanbul, caring for the intricate system of water cisterns in the city. The picture below depicts one of the Medusa heads guarding the underground water system. Of course, in 19th century Istanbul, the electric lighting was not in place. Yashim has to navigate the underground tunnels in darkness.
In trying to solve the mystery of Lafevre’s death and trying to locate a missing waterman whose family is staying at Stanislaw’s home, Yashim finds himself involved in danger from several angles. He turns to his old friend the Valide, the Sultan’s mother, for help with his investigation. The story becomes even more complicated when Yashim learns about “a shadowy society dedicated to the revival of the Byzantine Empire.” One of the characters in that plot is Dr. Milligen, the ill Sultan’s doctor. Ironically, Dr. Milligen was Byron’s attending physician in Greece when Byron died.
What are the connections between Dr. Milligen and Lafevre? Is Lafevre dead and is he using his real name? Yashim must discover the truth behind the secret society and also understand what has happened to the missing waterman.
As he travels about the city, Yashim treats readers to mouth-watering descriptions of food as it is being prepared and as he eats it. Simply the selection of the ingredients in the busy bazaar will entice readers to learn more about the cuisine of Istanbul.
Some readers may complain of a lack of real mystery in The Snake Stone. However, the story lives up to expectations in the colorful descriptions of the city, its people, and its food. The book is well worth reading for that sense of 19th century Istanbul.