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"An Evil Eye" is the fourth instalment in the 'Yashim the Eunuch' crime fiction series by Jason Goodwin. The stories are set in Ottoman era Istanbul and feature Yashim, a eunuch attached to the sultan's court at Topkapi. As a lala, or eunuch, Yashim is able to gain access to places other men would not normally be able to - such as the harem, for example. In exchange for investigating unsavoury goings on, Yashim has been granted the freedom to live outside the palace.
In this story Yashim is asked by the Grand Vizier to investigate the death of a Russian, likely murdered and found in the bottom of a well at an Orthodox monastery. The Grand Vizier, as leader of the young Sultan's government, is particularly concerned because relations with Russia are already strained and look set to get worse: the Russians have their sights set on Constantinople, which they regard as the spiritual home of Orthodox Christianity. Nineteenth century Istanbul, formerly Constantinople of course, was a crossroads of cultures, a meeting place for businessmen and diplomats, and, as such, rumours were rife.
Yashim's investigations, however, lead him to the Topkapi palace which is in a state of chaos because the new Sultan has decided to house his own harem in another palace further up the Bosphorus, leaving behind his grandmother with an ageing harem at Topkapi. Yashim must go back and forth between the two palaces to follow a bizarre train of events including a child born with defects said to be caused by the 'evil eye', the death of one of the women in childbirth and a strange wasting condition that afflicts one of the palace musicians. The sudden and mysterious arrival of a young child in the harem also gets Yashim wondering exactly what's going on.
While Jason Goodwin is an expert on Ottoman history and culture, it was his sister, the author Daisy Goodwin that suggested he use the detective genre to write about the period. Yashim's debut in the Edgar-winning 'The Janissary Tree' was a triumph but subsequent outings failed to reach those heights, at least as far as the crime writing aspect is concerned. "An Evil Eye" is, in my opinion, the weakest of the Yashim novels where plot is concerned because so much of the plot revolves around the superstitious beliefs of many of the characters, something I find neither interesting nor particularly entertaining.
On the other hand, I've come to enjoy my encounters with Yashim and that continues here in spite of the short comings of the plot. He's a fascinating character, remarkable not just because of his being a eunuch, or because he's so perceptive and intuitive. He speaks several languages, is well educated, can rustle up a mouth watering meal and walks the streets of Istanbul in a robe and turban while most men are wearing European style dress. Palewski, the Polish ambassador and Yashim's occasional 'Dr. Watson', appears once more though he is less involved than previously. His character has never been developed fully and we should know more about him by book four so it is perhaps better that he has a lesser role since it doesn't look like Goodwin will ever tell us more about him.
"An Evil Eye" is a colourful and exciting tale: full of intrigue and drama with plenty of tension and at the same time richly enhanced with historical detail. There's stalking and subterfuge and even an exhilarating, heart in your mouth, caique chase on the Bosphorus. For me, though, the highlights of any Yashim novel are the culinary interludes when we get to witness the whole process from shopping in the market through preparation and the satisfying conclusion as the meal is enjoyed.
A couple of years back I read Katie Hickman's entertaining and illuminating historical novel 'The Aviary Gate' which was set in the Topkapi harem; however, that novel portrays the harem as a rather glamorous affair whereas Goodwin's harem is more like a boarding school with excitable girls and women, double crossing and scheming in order to promote themselves and win the eye of the Sultan. Goodwin also explains the workings and hierarchy of the harem really well though I did find that in this novel the female characters were perhaps too numerous and therefore difficult to keep track of.
The Yashim novels needn't be read in sequence, though I'd suggest that to read "The Janissary Tree" first is a good move just because it's the best. That said, "An Evil Eye" is still a lively and colourful read with all the hallmarks of good historical fiction. Recommended.
304 pages in paperback