Just as the golden city astride the Bosphorus has lured a string of conquerors – Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans most notable – Constantinople lures writers of mysteries. Cultural crossroads, repurposed houses of worship and sects with more in common than they might care to admit, ancient tunnels and ruins, maze-like markets … people must get murdered in a place like that every day!
Setting a murder mystery in Constantinople seems like the equivalent of setting a slasher movie in a sorority house. Fortunately for the reading audience, authors of such mysteries seem to savor the challenge of understanding the history, culture, and presence of the place. I’ve yet to read such a novel that hasn’t been painstakingly researched and thoroughly enjoyable.
Jenny White’s The Abyssinian Proof chronicles a momentous and harried week in the life of Kamil Pasha, an 18th-century magistrate tasked with solving a series of thefts of antiquities that have brought the city to the brink of bloody religious conflict. As was the case historically, the religion behind the thefts turns out to be unchecked capitalism and unbridled colonialism rather than any Christian or Muslim sect. Current world leaders would do well to note that fact, but I digress.
Earlier in the summer, I plucked Jason Gould’s The Snake Stone from the shelf, attracted, I will admit, by its beautiful book jacket design. Its hero, Yashim, was on the move in fictional Istanbul about a half-century earlier than Kamil Pasha, but both men seem remarkably modern compared to those you come across in 19th century American literature. I believe this is because Istanbul, or Constantinople, is such an old city. New York was still a churlish teenager in the 19th century.
The Abyssinian Proof places a literary proof of the existence of god as the central mystery of the story. I expected that the story would revolve around never finding it, but at one key moment, a scholar gives a quick sight-translation, so the reader actually does get a glimpse of what a proof of such import might say. The author proves her chops with this move – she presents an entirely realistic and plausible example of the sort of document Elaine Pagels would kill to find in a tarnished reliquary in a market stall.
Well, Elaine Pagles would probably not actually kill anyone, but I’m quite sure she’d be pretty revved up to get first crack at the exegetical work around a document like this.
Some quick thoughts:
- Some fairly graphic violence in the novel might distract the squeamish, but it is all in service to the plot and never seems out of place.
- Fictional characters in 19th century Istanbul smoke like their lives depend upon it.
- bet you can take tours of the underground plumbing in Istanbul, like you can tour the catacombs in so many older cities. Would you do it?