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Bringing Ottoman Istanbul to life - courtesy Kolkata and Dan Brown

IANS  |  New Delhi 

Inspired by great writers' depiction of grand cities, British historian Jason Goodwin sought to immortalise the Ottoman Empire's imposing capital, which not only straddles continents but also cultures and eras, in fiction and found recreating the ambiance of 19th century Istanbul owed as much to a stint in Calcutta of the 1980s as contemporary accounts.

Impressed by the Ottomans after discerning their continuing influence while walking from Poland to Istanbul in 1991 (recounted in "On Foot to the Golden Horn", 1993), he sought to address questions about their origins, achievements and legacy in "Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire" (1999) and then mulled a novel but was hesitant.

"When I had answered that, I carried on writing non-fiction but there was always a part of me thinking about writing a novel. But, to be honest, I was scared of attempting fiction," Goodwin told IANS in an e-mail interview.

Encouragement came from an unexpected quarter - author Dan Brown.

"Then I read a Dan Brown thriller, and the penny dropped: Dan Brown's books were page-turners even though he was not really a first-rate writer. I found that very liberating - it allowed me to have a go," he said.

"So I sat down one morning and wrote a page about a bank heist in modern-day London. The next morning, almost automatically, I dropped the idea and started to write a thriller set in Istanbul in 1836, with a eunuch as a detective."

The result was "The Janissary Tree" (2006), which went on to be published in more than 40 languages, and won mystery fiction's most coveted honour, the Edgar Award for Best Novel. The savvy and learned eunuch Yashim, who is entrusted by the sultan with various commissions, returns in "The Snake Stone" (2007), "The Bellini Card" (2008), "An Evil Eye" (2011) and "The Baklava Club" (2014).

Goodwin, 51, had "read so much about the Ottomans, including loads of travellers' accounts"; so he had no problem with the details.

"And my experience as a travel writer helped me with the creation of old Istanbul. Readers have told me again and again that the city comes completely alive for them in my Yashim novels," he said.

"Some of it, to be honest, I base on my experience of Calcutta in the early 1980s," said Goodwin, whose first book was "The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels Through India and China in Search of Tea" (1991).

His influences included great 19th century writers who often wrote about cities. Honore de Balzac (Paris) and Charles Dickens (London) particularly were "an inspiration when I came to depict Istanbul", while for the detection aspect, there were Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe of Raymond Chandler - "a fantastic writer, who created a fictional LA and Hollywood that is almost more real than LA itself".

On a eunuch as protagonist, Goodwin contends there are striking similarities with these great detectives.

"Marlowe and Holmes - like Poirot - are a little bit like Yashim... they are all, really, eunuchs, unmarried, viewing their society at an angle, and eager to solve its crimes and misdemeanours!"

And in Yashim's case, it was necessary "because it was the only way he could visit anyone he liked, and talk to women as well as men, in what was otherwise a very traditional and segregated society".

With the Yashim series ending, Goodwin says having "leaped from non-fiction to fiction, I might jump back". He is currently working on a screenplay of a "true, but great story" about a Turkish horse brought to England in the 17th century and became one of the forebears of the modern thoroughbred race horse.

"A screenplay is really interesting to write - different challenges, of course, but very action-driven," he said.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at

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First Published: Thu, July 02 2015. 10:36 IST