Try to think of someone in our culture who enjoys unquestioned access to both the highest chambers of power and the lowest regions of squalor; someone who is trusted by all because he poses no threat, and thus has in his keeping more information than anyone else possibly could. Who would it be? The cable guy? The pizza deliverer? In Jason Goodwin's Istanbul of 1836, it is Yashim Togalu, a fellow who can walk as freely into the sultan's harem as into a coffeehouse. Why such freedom? Because he is a eunuch. Having been castrated in his youth, he holds the keys to the Sublime Porte, the capital of the Ottoman Empire the most beautiful and dangerous city in the world, and the fabulous site of Goodwin's new mystery, The Janissary Tree.
When a harem girl and a member of the royal guard are found murdered on the same day, the sultan and the head military officer immediately hand the case over to Investigator Yashim. Time is short: The sultan will review the New Guard in 10 days, and if the mysterious deaths (others follow hard upon the first two) are not cleared up by then, the precarious stability of the empire may once again crumble. Goodwin's mid-career crossover from nonfiction to detective novels (this is the first in a projected series) is a triumph of the first order. As our finest historian of the Ottoman world, he knows well that to recreate a past civilization, both author and reader must inhabit it fully in the imagination. With Yashim, we go shopping in the bustling market by the Golden Horn, and then go home to cook up a savory pot of rice mouth-wateringly mixed with currants, pine nuts and Allah knows what else. We make friends with the Byronic ambassador from Poland and a redoubtable drag queen. Along the way, we begin to appreciate the dark and bloody consequences of the collapse of the Janissary Guard in 1826. We learn that much more than perfumed flesh is being made ready within the walls of the harem. We are dazzled by the beauty of a lady who gives Yashim back his manhood. It is difficult to imagine a more generous or more subtle realization of the word mystery than the experience of The Janissary Tree. Michael Alec Rose is a professor of music at Vanderbilt University.