If you’re looking for something to give Istanbul back a sense of flair, a sense of mystery — a sense of Constantinople in fact — Jason Goodwin’s The Snake Stone is just what you need. With impeccable main character Yashim, a plot full of hints and insinuations, and Goodwin’s background as a Cambridge scholar of the Ottoman Empire, The Snake Stone is a delicious read for travelers, mystery lovers, and even armchair historians.
I read a lot of mysteries, but in Goodwin’s first novel The Janissary Tree I found the first new author in a very long time to impress me with storytelling, character building, and a sense of place. In his Edgar Award-winning debut novel, Goodwin introduced detective Yashim, a eunuch living in 1830s Istanbul, who has the ear of the sultan, access to the harem, friends across the social spectrum, and a passion for cooking. It was an excellently written novel in both plot and characters, but its real pull was the image of Istanbul under a sultan eager to reform the Ottoman Empire along European lines.
Goodwin continues this theme in The Snake Stone. Through his fictional accounts, Goodwin aims to give an accurate description of Constantinople on the cusp of turning into Istanbul. Men are abandoning the turban for the fez, and robes for trousers. The old ways are being phased out, and we get to watch the process.
The presence of Istanbul is palpable throughout Goodwin’s writing. And no wonder. Not only is he a scholar, he’s written a travel book based on his epic walk from Poland to Istanbul: On Foot to the Golden Horn, which won the John Llewellyn Rys Prize for travel writing. Goodwin brings his knowledge of and love for the Ottoman Empire to life in his mystery novels. In both books Yashim practically gives readers a walking tour of the Istanbul he knows as he follows hints and clues throughout the city. In The Snake Stone he focuses on the history and mysteries of the Aya Sofia, the beautiful cathedral-turned-mosque in the central city; and makes an unexpected but thrilling detour through Istanbul’s ancient waterworks.
I still think of Turkey as one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I’ve ever visited, but I’d like to go back, Goodwin’s books in hand, and walk the streets of Istanbul with new eyes.
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