Death on the Bosphorus
Set in 1886 at the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire, Jenny White's beautifully written first novel revolves around the murder of an English governess and touches on so much more. White is a professor of anthropology whose specialty is Turkish culture, so she understands the society's Byzantine (pun intended) workings, from the machinations of the ladies of the harem where the governess worked to the fears that drive corruption at the highest levels of government. All of these threads come into play when the body of Mary Dixon washes up on a shore of the Bosphorus. She's naked save some jewelry, including a pendant which bears the tughra, or seal, of the sultan. The seal can't be reproduced without the approval of the palace. What is it doing on a pendant found on the body of this foreign woman? And how does Mary's death relate to the earlier death of another English governess who once wore the same pendant?For all its exoticness, The Sultan's Seal is a detective story, and the detective here is the logical but not quite hardboiled magistrate Kamil Pasha. The murder sets him on a course to find Mary's killer and seek justice, though justice in his society proves a malleable thing. His journeys take him into the orbits of all manner of folk, including Sybil, daughter of the British ambassador, who falls in love with Kamil. Other characters are Sybil's vulgar and affable American cousin Bernie; Jaanan, the restless niece of a respected jurist and poet; and her beloved cousin Hamza, whose revolutionary leanings lead to tragedy. There's also Michel, the medical examiner who knows more than he lets on, and the British ambassador, who, like Kamil's own father, seems undone by grief over his wife's death. White's writing is shimmering and sensuous. She writes of rich fabrics, the sparkle of jewels, the velvety black petals of Kamil's favorite orchid and the best way to peel the skin of an almond (with your thumbnail). Her world, despite its restrictions, is one in which you will want to immerse yourself. The Sultan's Seal is a book to savor. Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.