Monday, May 28, 2007

Jason Goodwin: The Janissary Tree

Jason Goodwin is an English historian who has written, among other things, a history of the Ottoman Empire. The Janissary Tree is his first novel, and to the surprise of some it has just won the Mystery Writers of America award for Best Novel.

Among those surprised was Goodwin's American agent, who (I read somewhere) advised him not to bother going to New York for the MWA award ceremony. Another surprised party was Goodwin's American publisher, Sarah Crichton of Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books. Publishers Weekly quotes Sarah as follows: 'I mean, this book is about a eunuch in the sultan’s court in the 1830s—who would’ve thought it could win?'

If you want a set of three surprised individuals, add me. Mind you, the MWA has a record of honouring some odd ones. In 1986, L.R. Wright won with The Suspect, and I think it's fair to say that not many people know of that writer, or the book.

The Janissary Tree is published in England by Faber. Now despite that firm's support for P.D. James, one would have to say that Faber is not the sort of publisher that one generally associates with crime or thrillers, so any novel in that overall genre which is published by them is obviously going to be a shade unusual. And this one is.

As indicated by the American publisher, the book is set in Istanbul in 1836. The author himself describes it as a thriller, which is a fair description, and the hero is Yashim, a eunuch. In case you're wondering, the Sultan's palace was at that time pretty much thick with eunuchs. Yashim wasn't all that unusual.

The plot concerns some dead Janissaries and an equally dead virgin from the Sultan's harem. The Janissaries, in case your memory has temporarily lapsed, were the crack troops of the Ottoman empire, often recruited from among the conquered Christians.

This brief description of the time and setting describes more or less equally well the novel's chief selling point: its novelty. This isn't the only crime novel about a eunuch, but they're not all that common. Neither do we often go to Istanbul in the 1830s.

That said, there isn't an awful lot else to say. The book mostly held my attention throughout, and there are some really splendid touches, such as the pen-portrait of George, the Greek vegetable vendor. Mr Goodwin has also worked a variant on Raymond Chandler's general principle: when in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. In this case, Goodwin's law says, when in doubt have a eunuch go into a room where there's a naked woman gazing into a mirror. That livens things up a bit.

However, the author is inexperienced in the field of fiction, and it shows. And in my view the ending is too subtle for its own good.

This book is evidently to be the first in a series. More info on the author's web site.

I can't help wondering if there's a film in this. Eunuch. Istanbul. Non-Christian religion. Yeah, you know, come to think of it, there is. Tom Cruise would be a natural.


Adrian Weston said...

Interesting comments on Faber & crime. I've recently sold a debut crime/thriller writer Helen FitzGerald to Faber (they are publishing her first crime/thriller Little Girls in Spring 2008) and have found them to be rather keen on having a new genre voice. Remember as well as PD James, they have also had Michael Dibdin for a long time (up to his sad death this year) and have a surprisingly good crime list when you look more closely. But all of their crime novelists do have a little something extra.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for the mention. Mary and I have never played up the fact that our detective is a eunuch. It was kind of an accident. We originally figured on writing nothing beyond a 2,000 word short story featuring a Byzantine Lord Chamberlain, and since they were often eunuchs we named him "John the Eunuch" not realizing we'd be asked for more stories or end up writing novels.

Nevertheless it has been a bit disheartening to read reviewer after reviewer -- even the New York Times -- remark upon the originality of Mr Goodwin's detective when our fellow has been featured in six novels.

I suppose books from smaller publishers don't always get noticed. How surprising!

Anyway, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Non-Christian religion, Tom Cruise--naw, I won't go there--it'd be too much fun. Xenuxenu.

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