Book Review of The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin




First published in 2006, The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin has been followed by three other books, the last of which was released in 2011, so it’s not clear whether or not the series will continue. The Janissary Tree sees Yashim in a race against time to find out who is behind a total of four, very public and brutal murders, one further murder in the Sultan’s palace and the theft of some hugely valuable jewels belonging to the Sultan’s own mother.

Characters

The main character is Yashim Togalu, linguist, cook, all-round problem-solver - and eunuch, which gives him access to the Sultan’s harem and the women in it. This is very handy as a plot device and since this is a work of fiction rather than a science text book, it’s fine with me that there’s quite a bit about Yashim’s appearance and behaviour which frankly doesn’t tie in with historical information about eunuchs. Likewise, I’m prepared to accept that Yashim often shows attitudes and behaviours which seem rather too much ahead of their time, even for the liberal intelligentsia (as do other people in the book). To be honest, I could live without the repeated emphasis of Yashim’s isolation due to his state as a eunuch, particularly since I know (and the book makes clear) that eunuchs can have physical relationships, so really there would have been nothing to stop Yashim marrying and adopting children if that was the life he wanted. This, however, is a minor issue, in my opinion.

There are two, key secondary characters Stanislaw Palewski and Preen.

By a quirk of fate, Palewski is paid by the Turkish court to be the Polish Imperial Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, even though at this point in history, Poland does not actually exist. He is arguably a bit of a caricature, albeit in a nice way, being somewhat loud, rather melancholic and very definitely fond of a drink or three, but he is also kind-hearted, loyal and often entertaining.

Preen is a köçek dancer, who is always described as being female and referred to as she, but was born a boy. This is another aspect of the book, where it’s arguably just best to go with the flow and accept the character as is rather than getting tangled up in knots with the real köçek dancers who were certainly erotic dancers and generally dressed as women (at least when working), but were definitely boys. Preen is also arguably a bit of a caricature, coming across very much as the stereotypical theatre “luvvie” but still, appropriately enough, entertaining. As a side note, the book is set in 1836, a year before the köçek dancers were banned, not for religious or moral reasons, but because the dancers tended to provoke fights (inadvertently) as viewers vied for their attention (and favours) and in addition to the disturbance and damage this caused, some people were actually killed.

Setting

Jason Goodwin is absolutely brilliant at depicting 1830s Istanbul without ever making the reader think that they’re being given a lesson in history and geography (although we are). If the author’s characters are less well-rounded than they might be, his descriptions of the city are superb and take us from the great palaces and mosques to the tanneries and the docks via the bustling streets and markets. In addition to describing the locations and the history of the city, Goodwin also gives us plenty of information about the culture of Istanbul and the everyday life of its people both high-ranking and low-ranking. If you enjoy good travel writing then you’re probably going to like The Janissary Tree.

Plot

Both the theft of hugely valuable jewels belonging to the Sultan’s mother and the murder of one of the Sultan’s many concubines seem to be insignificant compared to the murder of four young army officers who are found one by one at places which were significant to the old Janissary Corp, which was believed to have been annihilated with only their tree remaining as a reminder that they had ever existed. Yashim soon comes to suspect that the murders are intended to stir up panic and to set the scene for a revolution it is his job to prevent. For the most part the plot speeds along briskly and the climax is excellent (and would be great in a TV adaptation). Some people might find the descriptions of Yashim’s cooking and love of books to be a bit excessive and I must admit there were times I did wish Goodwin would speed it up a bit, but to be fair they could be quite interesting.

Overall impression

Taken purely as a detective novel, The Janissary Tree is a pretty decent effort, particularly from a first-time novelist. In the nicest possible way, this is a fairly old-school whodunnit which often reminded me of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries. Like many detective stories, the plot does contain pointers as to who the real villains are, so it’s possible you might guess, but there’s also a decent sprinkling of red herrings to keep you diverted and distracted.

Taken as a work of historical fiction, which just happens to be in the format of a mystery story, then The Janissary Tree does have a lot to offer. Historically, in the days of absolute rulers like the Turkish Sultans, palaces were always full of plots and intrigue and more than a few murders (or assassinations) and cities were generally the places where revolutions took hold, so although this novel isn’t historically accurate, it is certainly historically believable. It also provides lots of truly memorable descriptions of Istanbul and its people as a whole.

In short

This novel strikes me as being the written equivalent of a walking tour round a city, with the mystery element used to give some sort of coherence to the excursion. In that sense, it’s a worthwhile and enjoyable read. I just wish the author had put a bit more effort into developing his individual characters, because that could have taken The Janissary Tree from good to great and massively increased its re-read value. Having said that, I’d certainly recommend reading this book at least once.

Overall verdict - May read again, but would borrow rather than keep.

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