Category Archives: Turkish Historical Fiction

The Book Whisperer Examines Last Train to Istanbul


Having spent my life as a student and teacher, I must confess that I went to two book clubs last week without having read the book for one, a deliberate choice, and not having finished for the second one. I chose not to read Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros because I started the book and did not like it. Obviously, if I had been reading for a class whether as a student or a teacher, I would have read the book anyway. Now, however, I give myself permission to read or not to read as I see fit. I have too many books on my list to waste time on books I do not like; I can at some point revisit the books I’ve rejected.

I was also reading Last Train to Istanbul by Ayse Kulin for a book club. I wanted very much to complete the story before the book club met, but I simply ran out of time. I was reading on my Kindle and got to 80% of the book, and an exciting part, I may add. I did finish the book after the meeting!

Ayse Kulin is a much- loved author born in Istanbul, Turkey. She has written a number of books, selling more than ten million copies world-wide. Last Train to Istanbul won the European Council Jewish Community Best Novel Award. It has been translated into twenty-three languages.

Last Train to Istanbul centers on the story of two sisters: Sabiha, the elder, and Selva, the younger. The story opens with Selva, a Muslim, falling in love with Rafael Alfandari, a Jewish man born and raised in Turkey. Sabiha has often pushed Selva into meetings with Rafael so she could pursue her own interests and not be burdened by her younger, beautiful sister. As a result, Sabiha blames herself when Selva and Rafael fall in love.

Both girls have been well-educated. Selva particularly loves debating with her father and feels on equal footing with him. When she argues that she must marry Rafael because the two cannot live apart, her father is angry and will not accept her argument. Rafael’s parents are equally appalled by the thought of their son marrying a Muslim.

Selva and Rafael do marry and flee to Paris where they think they can live happily even though they will be separated from their families. All may have gone well, but Hitler invaded France, so Selva and Rafael quickly move to Marseilles, hoping they will remain safe there.

Tarik, a Turkish government official, has worked with Macit, Sabiha’s husband in Ankara, but he has been transferred to an office in Paris. He will become an integral part of the story.

The tension increases as the Germans are also in Marseilles and Jews are being arrested. Meanwhile in Turkey, Sabiha suffers from depression, feeling she has signed her sister’s death warrant. She becomes distant from her husband and young daughter. She feels responsible for the estrangement between her parents and her sister. Macit, Sabiha’s husband, is a high-level minister in the Turkish government, working long hours. His absence also contributes to Sabiha’s depression.

Much of the story takes place in Marseilles where Selva works with the Turkish Embassy to get passports for Turkish Jews and others living in France to help them escape to Istanbul and therefore escape from the Nazis.

The story becomes tense when the passports are all forged and Turkish names assigned to those trying to escape. The group arranges for a train and in a daring move decides to take the train right through Berlin and then down to Istanbul.

The journey will not be easy, not in terms of comfort or security. The train must go through many checkpoints, any of which could mean disaster. The group consists of young adults, elderly people, and children. Kulin does a masterful job of conveying the dangers the people face as they make their way to Istanbul.

Readers learn of the individuals and become invested in their safety. The tension increases as the train makes its way into Berlin.

Kulin has created a riveting story with characters the readers come to know. I found myself at times holding my breath because of the tension. We read many stories about WWII. This one takes readers on a slightly different journey, starting in Ankara, moving to Paris and Marseilles, and then to Istanbul in pursuit of freedom and safety. Last Train to Istanbul is well worth reading.







The Book Whisperer Reviews a Favorite: The Snake Stone


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: On the site, readers can find Goodwin’s blog as well. Here is an example of one blog post:

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.


The Book Whisperer Reviews Another Turkish Mystery


Jenny white immigrated to the US from Germany when she was a child. She and her mother settled in New Rochelle, NY. Over the years, she has held a number of jobs including bookkeeper, librarian, language teacher, copyeditor, and professor. Now, she has turned to novel-writing. She has published three mysteries set in 19th-century Istanbul. All three feature Kamil Pasha as the detective who solves the crimes, often at his own peril.

The third book in the series is The Winter Thief. White is a social anthropologist with a Master’s degree in psychology and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the U of Texas, Austin. She lived several years in Turkey, so she has experience in the country with its people, customs, and culture.

The Winter Thief is rich in details, evoking an exotic, charming, and often dangerous place: 19th-century Istanbul.  The Sultan is jealous and fearful of having his power usurped, so he constantly listens for plots against him.

The plot is complicated with several stories intersecting. The story begins with Vera Arti, a Russian Armenian, trying to find a publisher for Karl Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party in Turkey in Armenian. Vera begs the publisher to print the Manifesto in Armenian so that “the Armenian people will find the strength to resist oppression . . . by joining the International Movement, by standing shoulder to shoulder with other oppressed peoples around the world.”

The publisher is sympathetic, but he cannot safely publish the document. Vera is young and naïve, thinking she is working for the greater good. She has married Gabriel Arti, also working for the Communist cause. He and others hope to set up a utopian community called Chouruh Valley on the Russian-Turkey border.

Unfortunately, Gabriel’s group needs guns and money. A shipment of guns Gabriel expects to receive is intercepted by the police when the ship docks. The guns are concealed in barrels supposedly holding fish. The guns are scheduled to go to a holding company, so the authorities cannot trace who is to receive them because the holding company does not exist.

The plot becomes more complicated when Vera is kidnapped by Vahid, a sadistic leader of a special branch of the secret police, reporting to the Sultan. Vahid is also an enemy to Kamil Pasha and Kamil’s brother-in-law. The violence in the story is often hard to read. Vahid is particularly vicious and sadistic. He wants to disgrace Kamil Pasha in the Sultan’s eyes also. Readers can only hope that good will triumph in the end.

Another sketchy character is Yorg Pasha, a wealthy and powerful man who deals in contraband and other illegal activities. His wealth protects him. He helps Gabriel escape Vahid’s clutches, but he cannot rescue Vera to leave with Gabriel. Later, Sosi, a young woman, helps Vera escape, but Sosi loses her life; Vahid also has her brother Abel killed. Abel has worked with Gabriel. Unbeknownst to Gabriel, however, Abel has set off an explosion that has killed and wounded a number of people. He sets the explosion at the same time that Gabriel is robbing the bank in the same area. The plot is complicated!

Vahid wants the Sultan to think Gabriel and his group plan to assassinate the Sultan and start a revolution. In truth, they only want guns for protection at their utopian camp and money to run the camp until they can make it self-sustaining. Much is against the success of the Chouruh Valley settlement, however. The weather is harsh and both Russian and Turkish forces are suspicious of the group.

Kamil Pasha is certain his brother-in-law has been injured or killed in the explosion. Feride, Kamil’s sister, endangers herself and Elif, a female cousin, and Doctor Moreno as they try to find Feride’s husband. Kamil Pasha is also trying to find his brother-in-law as well as Vera Arti. Vahid continues to throw roadblocks into their paths. Kamil must walk a fine line to keep from being accused of crimes himself because of Vahid’s underhandedness.

At one point, a monastery is under siege. One of the commune members considers how ill-prepared he is as a fighter: “I’m a philosopher. We collect the cream clotted at the rim of every civilization. We don’t need to see it milked and churned.”

Readers will go along for a dangerous ride as the characters become more and more entangled in a web of deceit and peril. Kamil Pasha must not only sort out the truth, but he must also convince Sultan Abdulhamid that Vahid is a dangerous criminal rather than a policeman.

Jenny White’s Web site provides additional information about all of her work, fiction and nonfiction:






The Book Whisperer Offers a Mostly Postive Review


Jenny White, an anthropologist, has written about Turkish history and culture.  Two of her scholarly works include Islamist Mobilization in Turkey and Money Makes Us Relatives: Women’s Labor in Urban Turkey. The Sultan’s Seal is her first novel; she has followed it with The Abyssinian Proof and The Winter Thief, all three mysteries featuring the magistrate Kamil Pasha, an aristocrat who serves the new secular court.

The Sultan’s Seal offers a complicated plot and is told in three voices: by Kamil, Sybil, and Jaanan. Readers can become confused by the alternating chapters told in three voices. To sort that complication out, here are the relationships. The setting is 19th century Istanbul. Istanbul and Turkey itself are moving toward modernization, so many things are in flux, creating conflict. Kamil also points out “there is no concept of time in the Orient…. Time is when you marry and have children, then your children marry and have children of their own. That is how lives are reckoned. Between those markers, people sit in the shade, drink tea with their fellows, and make their neighbors’ hills into mountains or cause mischief.” Kamil reflects on this philosophy because he is caught as the magistrate preferring to “measure his time and calculate what can be done with it minute by minute.”

Kamil Pasha, aristocrat and magistrate, investigates the murder of a young English woman found nude and washed up on the shore of the Bosporus. He is joined by his friend and police surgeon Michel Sevy, a Jewish surgeon whom Kamil trusts for medical knowledge, but also for his skill in noting the details of a crime. Kamil’s sister Feride lives with her husband and twin daughters; Kamil and Feride’s father also lives in an apartment adjoining Feride’s home.


Sybil is the daughter of the English ambassador, a young woman who entertains for her father in his official duties since her mother’s death. Sybil and Kamil have an interesting relationship. Kamil turns to Sybil to help him sort out the young woman’s death since the dead woman is English. Sybil helps him identify her as Mary Dixon who had worked as a governess in the Sultan’s harem. Readers never see Sybil’s father, but they do meet Bernie, an American cousin, who is also a scholar on Asia. Much of Sybil’s story is told in letters to her sister Maitlin who is in London with her husband and two sons.

Jaanan is a young woman living with her mother and Ismail Dayi, her mother’s brother. Jaanan’s mother moved out of her husband’s home when he took a second wife, Husnu. Hamza, Jaanan’s cousin has been her tutor and friend, but he has fled Turkey after being named a traitor. Hat times, he returns in disguise and stays in hiding. Jaanan’s father agrees to her engagement to Amin, a scoundrel fifteen years her senior, but Jaanan says she will not marry Amin. Jaanan’s father owes Amin because Amin sponsored Jaanan’s father for counsellor in the Foreign Ministry. Amin is a gambler and wants to marry Jaanan not only because she is young and  beautiful, but also because she will bring a substantial dowry and then inherit a great deal of money from her father and her uncle who has no children of his own. The other character is Jaanan’s life is Violet, her distant country cousin and servant.


Other characters play important roles as well; these named above form the basis for the main plot. The flaws in the book include too many subplots and the wide array of characters. When Kamil is called to investigate Mary Dixon’s death, he is reminded of a similar death of another English governess a few years earlier. Hannah’s death remains unsolved, but the similarities are too great to ignore even if the investigation takes Kamil and others into dangerous territory. When Kamil discovers that Mary is wearing a necklace that belonged to Hannah, the plot thickens even more. The necklace contains a tughra, the Sultan’s seal, along with Chinese characters for brush and bowstring which turns out to be part of a poem. Here’s where Bernie comes in handy since he speaks and reads Chinese. He recites the whole poem to Kamil:

In autumn wind the road is hard,

Streams fill with red leaves.

For crows what is left but stony soil and barren hills?

I can endure, a withered pine

clinging to a cliff edge.

Or set out on the road brocaded by frost.

Your brush is the bowstring that brings the wild goose down.

The Sultan’s seal is closely guarded. The two artisans who can create it are kept confined to the palace because the seal connotes the Sultan’s wishes. A thief could use the seal to the Sultan’s disadvantage. Remember too that the Sultan is constantly on guard against his relatives trying to kill him and take over.

The depth of deception in the novel is great. Kamil must unravel all the tangled threads in order to solve Mary’s and Hannah’s deaths, even at his own peril. The admonition “trust no one” would apply well here.

Margaret Cannon of The Globe and Mail writes that “The Sultan’s Seal is a terrific debut novel that I sincerely hope is going to turn into a series.” She is correct since two more books featuring Kamil have already been published. Cannon goes on to say “White’s plot is a bit convoluted, but the book is laden with cultural conflict and the characters are beautifully executed.” I would agree on all three counts. White could have simplified the plot a bit, especially since The Sultan’s Seal is her debut novel. Still, I look forward to reading the other two books. Booklist named The Sultan’s Seal one of its top ten first novels of 2006 and one of the top ten historical novels of 2006.

White’s background gives her the credentials to write about Turkey in both fiction and nonfiction. Born in Germany, Jenny White and her mother came to NY when White was seven. When she attended Lehman College, she studied abroad in Germany where she met people from Turkey, thus spurring her lifelong interest in Turkey, its culture, and its people. Once she graduated from college, she spent three years in Turkey, earning a master’s degree in psychology from Hacettepe University in Ankara. She received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Texas in Austin.

White’s Web site,, provides additional information on her works. She is also willing to talk with book clubs via Skype or other means.