“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Nobody Move, This Is A Review: THE SNAKE STONE by Jason Goodwin

Set in Istanbul in the mid-19th century, THE SNAKE STONE is the second of Jason Goodwin’s novels to feature Yashim Togalu, an unusual variation on the reluctant private eye (Yashim made his debut in THE JANISSARY TREE; THE SNAKE STONE won the 2007 Edgar for Best Novel). Formerly a eunuch at the sultan’s court, Yashim has earned a reputation as a lala, or guardian – a man of discretion to whom people can turn in their time of need. When an archaeologist, Lefèvre, throws himself on Yashim’s hospitality, Yashim is duty-bound to provide the Frenchman with whatever help he can. But when Lefevre is discovered horribly murdered shortly after Yashim has arranged for his escape from Istanbul, it quickly becomes apparent that the only suspect in the murder is Yashim himself.
  If that sounds fairly conventional, worry not; that’s merely the bare bones of the first 50 pages or so. Goodwin writes a pleasingly labyrinthine plot, one that utilises history, archaeology and politics in fleshing out a vibrant and meticulously detailed vision of Istanbul. The city makes for a wonderful setting, situated at the geographical crossing point between East and West, and a cultural melting pot that accommodates a bewildering variety of nationalities alongside its staple populations of Turk and Greek. Historically, the city can be summed up by the narrative of the former cathedral of Aya Sofia, a miracle of architecture that was formerly the jewel of Constantinople and pride of Byzantium, now the mosque with the largest dome in Islam. The aging sultan is dying; the hated janissaries have been defeated; the past and the future mingle in the thronged markets.
Early the next morning, leaving the Frenchman sleeping on the divan, Yashim walked down to the Horn and took a caique over to Galata, the centre of foreign commerce. In the harbourmaster’s office he asked for the shipping list and scanned it for a suitable vessel. There was a French 400-tonner, La Reunion, leaving for Valetta and Marseilles with a mixed cargo in four days’ time; but there was a Neapolitan vessel, too, Ca d’Oro out of Palermo, which had already been issued with bills of lading.
  Goodwin, a prize-winning historian, doesn’t graft his learning onto the plot. Instead the narrative is driven by its context, and the unravelling of the central mystery is integral to Yashim’s peeling back of layer upon layer of the city’s history. Yashim is a classic private investigator in that he seeks to understand his urban hinterland as a means by which he explore the motives of those who thrive in its mean streets; and just as Marlowe’s LA speaks to subsequent generations, so Goodwin’s Istanbul is a metaphor for contemporary globalisation. Istanbul is home to dozens of languages, the proverbial melting-pot of race and religion, a socially stratified nexus for trade and cross-cultural pollination.
  As for the story, it’s an absorbing tale, and Goodwin has a relaxed and lyrical style perfectly suited to the stately pace. Yashim walks, and never runs; he never so much as raises a jog. But Goodwin appreciates the fine difference between pace and pacing, and the importance of judicious timing, and THE SNAKE STONE is very much a compelling page-turner, a literary thriller. The most impressive thing, though, is the sense that Jason Goodwin is equally committed to all the elements of his craft: not only does he write beautifully and craft a fine plot set against an exotic background, he does so with a keen respect for the tradition of the crime narrative:
He’d seen it before, the way that sudden death made a nonsense of the things people did and said. Murder, above all, overturned the natural order of God’s creation: it was only to be expected that unreason and absurdity should crackle in its wake.

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