Novelist Highlights The Rich Flavor Of Old Istanbul For historian-turned-mystery-writer Jason Goodwin, the bustling Istanbul bazaar is a perfect setting for murder, and the evening call to prayer is "a good time to kick a man to death in the street."

Novelist Highlights The Rich Flavor Of Old Istanbul

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NPR's MORNING EDITION has been exploring crime novels that tell you something about the cities where they're set. I'm looking at list of these stories at our Web site: Nablus, Glasgow, Los Angeles.

Sometimes the city itself seems to be the main character, which can be true of the British author Jason Goodwin, who sets murder mysteries in Istanbul, Turkey.

Goodwin started as a historian of the Ottoman Empire, which was once ruled from that strategic city. Now he imagines murders taking place more than a century ago, when the Ottomans still ruled Istanbul's ancient streets.

The residents of that city today include NPR's Ivan Watson. We've been hearing him this week away from his home base, witnessing the conflict in Georgia. But before he left, he let Jason Goodwin show him the city they share.

IVAN WATSON: Jason Goodwin's eyes light up when he steps through a centuries-old archway into the carnival-like atmosphere of Istanbul's grand bazaar.

Mr. JASON GOODWIN (Mystery Writer): Yeah, you mix this with the old engravings, the old paintings of what it was like in the 19th century. (unintelligible). I mean, it's really not that different from what it was like then. It's just a complete emporium, stuffed with, you know…

WATSON: Beneath ancient, domed roofs decorated with Islamic tile work, crowds of Turks and foreign visitors surge past hundreds of shops. The vendors here sell everything from gold and Caspian Sea caviar to Kashmiri pashminas and knockoff Louis Vuitton bags. It is the perfect scene, Goodwin says, for a murder.

Mr. GOODWIN: The idea of what would happen if someone was just found dead. You know, imagine this place, this place, just complete, pullulating with trade, and suddenly it has to freeze. You know, the guy's dead.

WATSON: Goodwin takes a similar, slightly perverse approach to Istanbul's magnificent call to prayer. At sunset, the haunting chant erupts from the many domed mosques and minarets that make up the striking skyline of this city by the sea. This magical moment inspired a sinister scene in Goodwin's novel, "The Snake Stone."

Mr. GOODWIN: The voice was low and rough, and it came from behind as dusk fell. Hey, George. It was the hour of the evening prayer, when you could no longer distinguish between a black thread and a white one in ordinary light.

George pulled a paring knife from his belt and sliced it through the air as he turned. All over Istanbul, (unintelligible) in their minarets threw back their heads and began to chant. It was a good time to kick a man to death in the street.

WATSON: The Istanbul Goodwin writes about is not the booming megalopolis of modern-day Turkey.

(Soundbite of street car bell)

WATSON: Instead, he imagines Istanbul as it was in the 19th century, when it was the capital of the vast Ottoman Empire. Here is Jason Goodwin reading from "The Janissary Tree."

Mr. GOODWIN: It remained the biggest city in the world: 1,500 years of grandeur, 1,500 years of power, 15 centuries of corruption, coups and compromises - a city of mosques, churches, synagogues, of markets and emporia, of tradesmen, soldiers, beggars, the city to beat all cities, over-crowded and greedy.

WATSON: The hero is a soft-spoken palace detective named Yashim. Because of his unusual condition, Yashim happens to be the only person in Istanbul allowed to investigate murders in that most-forbidden of places, the Sultan's harem.

Mr. GOODWIN: With his kind face, grey eyes, dark curls barely touched at 40 by the passage of the years, Yashim was a listener, a quiet questioner and not entirely a man. Yashim was a eunuch.

WATSON: Where did the idea come from to have a eunuch as a detective?

Mr. GOODWIN: He has to be someone, he's at a kind of tangent to society. So you want somebody who belongs to the society that he patrols, but at the same time different, and kind of he's from it, but he's not of it. And then there's a practical reason why he's a eunuch, because, you know, I'm dealing with a very traditional, essentially Muslim society in 19th-century Istanbul. Well, a eunuch is the only character who can really get around. He can go anywhere.

WATSON: Many of the places where Yashim's adventures take place exist to this day. Goodwin brings a visitor to this ancient, underground cistern, where his eunuch detective ends up battling a murderous enemy in cold, dark waters.

Mr. GOODWIN: We're here down in the Yerebatan Cistern, which is the incredible sort of forest of columns underneath one of the main squares outside the old Church of Muscovite Sofia, and this is where water was stored in Byzantine times. It was built, I should think, in the 6th century. So it's 1,300, 1,400 years old.

WATSON: Just a few minutes' walk from the cistern, Goodwin stops into another of his favorite Istanbul landmarks, the famous Egyptian spice market.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) This is mint, oregano, (unintelligible) tea and Turkish saffron.

WATSON: The shopkeepers here happily display their exotic flavors to passing visitors, much as they probably did more than a century ago, as Goodwin reveals in this passage from "The Snake Stone."

Mr. GOODWIN: Mountains of vividly colored powder rose on every stall, pungent spices gathered from all across the world, from the coast of India and the mountains of China, from Persia and Arabia and the islands of the South Seas, brought here to this great (unintelligible) of the world's trade by (unintelligible) by (unintelligible) by camel train and mule train, over deserts, through wild seas, crossing the passes of legendary mountain ranges, bartered and bought, fought for and pilfered, growing ever more valuable and rare until, at last, they reach this market on the edge of Europe and vanished into a soup or a dish of rice.

WATSON: When not solving crimes and chasing murderers down Istanbul's winding streets, Yashim the eunuch detective spends a lot of time cooking. So does the author, Jason Goodwin.

Mr. GOODWIN: So we're just going to do this, chop up these tomatoes. I'm going to put them into the…

WATSON: So your character cooks all the time.

Mr. GOODWIN: Well, he cooks a lot. I mean he, you know, he's a eunuch, so there's certain things he doesn't derive quite so much pleasure from as perhaps, you know, our listeners would.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOODWIN: And there's another reason. I mean, there's a good reason why it's good for him to cook. So in these books, you know, one of the things I'm trying to do is always to give a sense of what this Ottoman world was like. And if you imagine that one of the obvious ways into it is like what does is taste like? What do they eat?

WATSON: Goodwin's recipe today is an Ottoman dish of eggplants, garlic, onions and lots of olive oil. The Ottoman world tastes delicious. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

INSKEEP: And you can find a recipe from Jason Goodwin, as well as an excerpt from "The Snake Stone," on It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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