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01.02.08

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The Snake Stone

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


A mystery novel ought to boast a watch-works plot, but sometimes a good setting can disguise a meandering story. Jason Goodwin, a Cambridge-trained scholar in Byzantine and Ottoman Empire history, has a great backdrop for The Snake Stone: Istanbul, circa 1830. In the second of Goodwin's Yashim Togalu mysteries (after The Janissary Tree), a French antiquarian's death ensnares court eunuch/gumshoe Yogalu in a plot that eventually takes him deep beneath Istanbul's crowded streets to the vaulted underground cisterns where the city's water supply courses out of sight and might conceal a fortune in Byzantine relics. One of the most compelling characters is the sinister head of the guild of water workers, who speculates on why Albanians control the reservoirs: "Is it because we come from the mountains that we understand the fall of water, and the measure of distances?" Yashim's approach to crime solving is not exactly Mike Hammeresque; he can be subtle to the point of distraction. "For every useful scrap of information, you must reject a hundred more," he explains. But the book sneaks in a lot of the city's tripartite history, from Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul. As anyone who has read Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk knows, Istanbul can be more mysterious than any murder, and Goodwin tours the city from the Golden Horn to Pera to the Greek village of Ortaköy to the Besiktas palace, where "the Shadow of God on Earth, Sultan Mahmut II," is slowly dying of tuberculosis, an event that signals major changes throughout a city facing the decline of empire and the onslaught of Western influence. And as befits most sleuths these days, Yashim is a gourmet cook and distracts the reader with tasty recipes; he even makes a simple sandwich with peppers, tomatoes, cheese and kirmizi biber (a dried red chili) sound irresistible. (By Jason Goodwin; Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus and ; 290 pages; hardback.)


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