The Baklava Club by Jason Goodwin

Reviewed by Helen Parry

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‘I’ve been complaining,’ Yashim said, ‘how Istanbul is overrun with foreigners these days. As if it was ever any different’.

It’s 1842, and three Italian exiles are kicking their heels in Istanbul in the company of the beautiful Dane, Sarah Lund, and awaiting instructions on how they can help unite Italy under a constitutional government. Count Palewski, ambassador to a country which no longer exists, is intriguing with Midhat Pasha, a minister in the Ottoman government, to bring a mysterious visitor to Istanbul, while trying to protect his drinks cabinet from the depredations of a bookworm Irish priest. Yashim, annoyed that Midhat Pasha has not requested his help, has been ordered by the sultan’s mother to show the sights of the city to a visiting friend of hers, a young Russian who hopes that Turkey will intercede on behalf of her father, a political prisoner in Siberia. Yashim is a eunuch, and thus able to move between the world of the harem, where the valide, the sultan’s mother, lives, and the teeming world of nineteenth-century Istanbul. He is accustomed to more demanding and dangerous assignments than acting as a tour guide to Natasha, who doesn’t even seem to appreciate his efforts.

Palewski, for one, doesn’t think that the Italians will amount to much:

For them it’s like a club, for honey and pistachios. The baklava club – they’ll probably end up making their peace and going home. In twenty years they’ll have joined the civil service and be judges on the bench, with paunches and ambitious wives, and this will be an interlude they’ll scarcely be able to remember.

Goodwin allows them to kick their heels for a hundred pages before the first crime is committed. And then he reveals immediately who is responsible for it. This is a risky strategy in a whodunnit, but Goodwin steeps us so thoroughly in Istanbul, its food (this is not a book to read on an empty stomach), bazaars and Topkapi palace complex, that the reader is too busy enjoying it to care. His ability to evoke place, and economically, is impressive: I really did feel as if I were there. An historian and the author of Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire (‘perhaps the most readable history ever written about anything’: Time Out), Goodwin has an impeccable background knowledge (although he apparently makes rather free with the real Midhat Pasha’s age and characterisation!). He compresses a lot of international political history into these pages, and while this does mean that the characters spend a lot of time telling each other about Turkish, Russian and Italian history, they do so in a way which seems natural and is interesting for the reader. When things start to happen, the breakneck pace and bloody violence are all the more shocking because of this leisurely, sunny beginning.

Despite espionage and murder, the tone of the novel is not dark. Affection binds the characters together and I felt that the author too cared about his creations, a quality I always appreciate. I liked the way that they botched their plots through poor planning, carelessness or insufficient ruthlessness. This seemed convincing to me, and very human. As a result the dénouement was affecting, infused with a sense of waste.

It’s light and fun, but I do have some reservations about The B aklava Club. This is the fifth in a series of novels featuring Yashim, ‘the Ottoman Detective’, and I have not read the previous four. I think this was a disadvantage. If you are already familiar with Yashim and his friends, you will enjoy the chance to meet them again. Certainly, if you’re writing a series, you shouldn’t be obliged to recreate the characters for each instalment and you should be able to rely on your readers to carry their ideas of your characters from one book to the next. But for me, beginning here, the characters seem frustratingly underdeveloped, and a couple, George and Preen, make appearances for old times’ sake rather than to play a real part in the story. This was a pity. However, what I read about them was interesting enough for me to want to investigate the rest of the series.

A second problem concerns expectations. International espionage, secret societies, assassins and Ottoman politics promise a much more intricate plot than was delivered. I was surprised, then, when I read reviews on Amazon of Goodwin’s previous novels to find quite a lot complaining that the plots were too complicated to follow. Perhaps the author tried to accommodate them. Mr Goodwin: don’t do that again please. More suspects and more complexity would definitely be better.

In short, I can happily recommend this book as an entertaining read, although I would advise newbies like me to begin with The Janissary Tree, Goodwin’s first book about Yashim and winner of the 2007 Edgar Award for best novel.

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Helen Parry talks too much to be a really successful international assassin and blogs at a gallimaufry.

Jason Goodwin, The Baklava Club (Faber: London, 2014). ISBN 978-0-571-23996-2, 278pp, hardback.

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