Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Sultan’s Seal: Jenny White

A location as rich as Istanbul, a period as ripe as the Ottoman Empire (albeit in its dying days), a palace full of intrigue, a magistrate as a detective, and the body of an unidentified naked English woman – great ingredients for a riveting detective story. So how well did first-time novelist Jenny White (whose day job is that of a professor of anthropology at Boston University) put the ingredients together?

White invokes the Istanbul of the late 19th century exceedingly well. Her period-precise language brings the city and the period quite alive in the reader’s mind. The coming apart of the city, the uncomfortable intermingling of the west and the east, an unstated sense of societal despair – all these shine through in the narrative. However, while the palace intrigues are suggested and even mentioned in the odd instance, White doesn’t get too deep into them – this is perhaps an area she could have exploited better. You almost beg for it at times.

Notwithstanding all that, The Sultan’s Seal is a Kamil Pasha book. His characterization in the early pages is exceedingly strong. (“He is a man who controls his environment by comprehending it.”) The first chapter really raises expectations to a tremendous level. And as we go forward, and start reading a lot more into his character and his idiosyncrasies (“…he keeps a clay jar of water and a tinned mug on the dressing table in his bedroom. He drinks from it to clear his mind and calm his senses.”), the stage is set for the magistrate-detective to impress.

However, Kamil Pasha flatters to deceive. The initial characterization makes him sound almost Holmesian (a deep interest in biology invites the comparison) in personality and detecting style. Subsequent events suggest he could be a classical analytical detective – not unlike an investigator in a police procedural. So you expect him to dredge through the details and uncover the crime in layers. But he ends up coming across as neither. You almost wonder what his role is in the unraveling of the mystery. Considering The Sultan’s Seal is referred to in the cover as “A Kamil Pasha Novel,” I would imagine this to be the beginning of a series of books. And may be in the subsequent ones Kamil Pasha would settle down to do some serious detective work.

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