The Edgar Awards Revisited: The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin (Best Novel, 2007)
By Ausma Zehanat KhanJanuary 10, 2020
Pulsing with dry humor and precisely drawn illustrations of the nuances of Istanbul life, The Janissary Tree would go on to win Best Novel at the 2007 Edgar Awards.
In his marvelous introduction to the Istanbul of the 1860s in The Janissary Tree, Jason Goodwin invites the reader into a city poised between worlds—in the process of modernizing, but clinging to the rites and traditions of the past; hungry, hustling, magnificent, yet quick to betray even the city’s most impervious elites. The Sublime Porte is the graceful, gilded, treacherous capital of the Ottoman Empire, aboil with conflict, rich in color and rustling with secret intrigues.
As such, it is the perfect background for two different highly politicized crimes: the murder of a young woman in the Sultan’s impregnable harem, and an ongoing series of grotesqueries vis-a-vis the murder of four cadets who are members of the city’s New Guard. The New Guard is overseen by a military commander who is ruthless in ambition and equally devoid of charm. The murder of the cadets cannot be tolerated as it will destabilize the Sultan’s plans to introduce sweeping new political reforms, and thus the humorless general of the Guard calls in retired Court eunuch Yashim Togalu to inquire into the murders.
Yashim may be castrated but he is irresistible to the women of the city, and not, it would appear, immune to sexual desire. An enigmatic figure in his cashmere cloak and easy entry into the different spheres of Istanbul life, Yashim has access to the royal, and the most abject. No one is immune from questioning, as his investigation takes him from misery-laden brothels to tanneries that stink of offal, to the luxurious corridors of the palace to the bed of a permissive and undiscriminating Russian ambassador’s wife. Yashim’s friendships cross class lines and convincingly ignore ethnic differences. Swept up in the scope of his investigation are a disconsolate Polish ambassador whom he counts as a close friend, a transgender dancing girl who assists Yashim at great personal risk, a former Armenian Janissary still loyal to the vestiges of empire despite the Janissary corps’ revolt, traditional Imams, Sufi mystics, fire-fighting neighbors, a colorful array of diplomats, and a scheming Valide Sultan—the mother of the present Sultan.
The Valide figures largely in the plot to unravel the murder of an otherworldly Circassian maiden who may have been double-crossed by other members of the harem. The Sultan of the empire is a mix of disparate qualities: pragmatic, weary with privilege, a little bored by the excesses of his harem, still indebted to the guidance of his much worldlier mother, who is keen to deflect any threat to a son who is game but still new to how the great game should be played. Obsessed with an almost talismanic collection of Napoleon jewels in her possession, the Valide is more than willing to step in for the Sultan when it comes to skirmishes at court, but whether the Valide or the murdered courtier are connected to the corpses who keep appearing at places significant to the Janissary corps remains to be seen.
It is the secrets of the Janissaries that are at the heart of this book. Conscripted from a young age first from the Balkans, then other parts of the empire, the Janissaries were the empire’s elite troops, and were considered the backbone of the sultanate. But in this case, power certainly corrupted, and a mere ten years prior, the Janissaries came to rule the Ottoman capital with obscene privilege, terrorizing palace and proletariat alike with their rampant corruption. The “Auspicious Event” described in The Janissary Tree refers to the moment when the palace and the people took the Sublime Porte back from a corps that had descended into rank debauchery. But were the Janissaries really crushed? Yashim questions whether this well-trained fighting force has resurfaced and is using the murder of the cadets as a call to action to its members: a call to take the city back before the Sultan’s reforms can be passed.
With his characteristic reserve and quietly brilliant eye, Yashim combs lost archives, hidden maps, ancient fire towers, and buried Sufi mosques to come up with an answer to the cadets’ murders—crossing the paths of unknown assailants at nearly every turn.
Reminiscent of Amin Maalouf’s sly and witty Samarkand, another history of empire, The Janissary Tree pulses with dry humor, and precisely drawn illustrations of the nuances of Istanbul life. Languages merging and melting, and men and women from around the globe attracted to the heart of empire are some of the many delights of this deeply engaging book.
Notes from the 2007 Edgar Awards:
- The other nominees for Best Novel were Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris, Liberation Movements by Olen Steinhauer, The Dead Hour by Denise Mina, The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard, and The Pale Blue Eyes by Louis Bayard.
- Martin Scorsese’s The Departed won Best Motion Picture, edging out Casino Royale, Children of Men, Notes on a Scandal, and The Good Shepherd.
- Stephen King hosted the awards as The Grand Master.
- The Mary Higgins Clark Award was given to Bloodline by Fiona Mountain.
- The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson won Best First Novel, ousting A Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read, Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith, King of Lies by John Hart, and Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as Danielle Prielipp stops by to review Down River by John Hart, the 2008 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.