Set in Istanbul in 1836, this début thriller begins with Investigator Yashim Togalu, a eunuch attached to the Ottomon imperial court, awakening from a dream inspired by his reading of the novel Dangerous Liaisons. The world of the Seraglio, in fact—with its jealous concubines and its conniving, gelded functionaries—would form an ideal backdrop for a tightly woven tale of domestic intrigue. When the mother of Sultan Mahmud II summons Yashim to Topkapi Palace and commands him to find out who stole her jewels and who (presumably at the same time) strangled a harem girl to death, the table seems to be laid for just such an tale.
But Goodwin has grander, and less old-fashioned, ambitions. With the tropes of a cinematic blockbuster clearly in mind, he unspools a main plot that concerns the brutal serial murder of four officers in the New Guard army. A decade earlier, the sultan had violently quashed the fabled Janissary legions, replacing that antiquated and uncontrollable force with the New Guard, an army modeled on its counterparts in the West. Are the Janissaries of old, who had gone to ground in 1826, preparing to rise again? Yashim, pursuing signs of an impending revolt, plies the city’s narrow, deceit-filled streets and scales its ancient, secret-laden towers. A fight (indeed, several fights), a fire (and the threat of further fires), and a little fun with the wife of a Russian ambassador (being a eunuch doesn’t mean being sexless, apparently) punctuate his path toward truth.
There’s a lot of screen-worthy action, in other words, and little in the way of careful detection. Packed with well-researched detail though it is, Goodwin’s story darts too quickly from scene to scene, from this menacing character to that comic type, never allowing readers to immerse themselves—as one would, say, in a Turkish bath—in a cohesive atmosphere of mystery.