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by Barbara Nadel
St Martin's Minotaur, February 2005
320 pages
ISBN: 0312337698

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In English literature, the Ottoman Empire has a reputation for being fascinating but barbaric. It's been the kind of place where everyone wanted to visit, at least as armchair travellers, but in part so that home-grown English dysfunction and barbarity wouldn't seem so dysfunctional and barbaric.

Elizabethan theatregoers worried about the succession could see a much worse problem in the career of the fratricidal Ottoman prince Selimus, the title character of Richard Greene's hit revenge tragedy. Two centuries later, readers of Byron's narrative poems The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos could chill their blood on depictions of sexually faithless concubines drowned in gunny sacks and rebellious princesses threatened with strangulation by bowstring, while tales of their author's escapades with Levantine rent boys under the eye of the Turkish pasha circulated beyond the mainstream press.

A lot of these elements turn up in Barbara Nadel's THE OTTOMAN CAGE: A NOVEL OF ISTANBUL, her second police procedural mystery set in that city. However, Nadel's view of modern Turkey is more empathetic and complex than her voyeuristic predecessors. When a murder victim is found in the 'sacking house', the place where centuries ago those gunny sacks were produced for state-sanctioned gynocide, Inspector Cetin Ikmen and his team are called in to investigate. He suspects that his country's Ottoman past haunts its present, but the exact manner in which antique ideas turn murderous in the present kept me guessing until nearly the end.

Meanwhile, Ikmen's family and friends struggle with conflicts that match the murder investigation in their intensity: the increasing dementia of the inspector's senile father, the shell of a once-brilliant academic; his overworked wife's health problems and need for her own space, and his sensible, strong-minded adult daughter's abandonment of traditional conventions and taboos, which force her father to question his own assumptions.

A colleague's journey to acceptance that his arranged marriage is trapping him and his wife equally is another example of Nadel's sympathetic, non-judgemental exploration of modern Turkey's growing pains. These subplots would have seemed mundane to the spectators of Greene's SELIMUS, but they provide a good counterbalance to the sensational main narrative.

There is a villain -- an intelligent sadist of the Hannibal Lecter variety, but a self-knowing one painfully conscious of the ways in which he is trapped by the brutal history he replicates. I can't say much more about him without giving away the plot, but he and Ikmen make a great odd couple, and when and if a film is made of this book, his role will be a juicy one for a lucky actor.

The moments of calm in which Nadel lovingly lingers over her vivid panoramas and memorable close-ups of her characters' society are well worth the pauses they occupy, in the way that Hugo's discursive passages of urban anthropology give his action-based novels the varied rhythms of a symphony.

Is Turkey really haunted by conventions of Ottoman brutality to the extent that Nadel suggests? The novelist has lived in Istanbul, and, according to PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY, writes from "intimate knowledge of that land." Her decision to tell the story entirely from the point of view of Ikmen and his Turkish colleagues makes her narration empathetic, and sets her far apart from Byron, TE Lawrence, and their ilk.

As the process by which Turkey will join the European Union opens a new chapter in the histories of that country and of Europe, I look forward to reading more of Inspector Ikmen and his busy, dazzling, and dangerous community.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, October 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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