Belshazzar’s Daughter, by Barbara Nadel

I recently started a novel with a lovely and intriguing cover, an interesting title, and glowing blurbs. Before I'd read even twenty pages, though, we were on our third time period and third set of characters. Maybe my attention span has gotten shorter, but that just required too much up-front work from me, and I discarded the book without going further.

I think this is one reason why I like mysteries: they stay closer to the classical unities than most novels. There is one main action: solving the murder. Mysteries usually are centered on a limited number of settings: a police station or detective's office, the scene of the crime, the den of the prime suspect. And they normally cover no more than a few days. Now, I'm not a stickler. I love P.D. James's books which sometimes don't get around to the murder till halfway through the book. I expect the detective to range far and wide during the investigation. I welcome flashbacks and the layering of past and present. But I want to invest myself in characters whom I'll be able to accompany for the whole journey. A series, like James's Dalgliesh series, offers an even wider scope for the journey and an immediate commitment to familiar characters.

This 1999 book is the first in Nadel's series set in Istanbul featuring Çetin Ikmen, a police inspector who smokes and drinks brandy steadily throughout the day leaving a trail of nasty overfull ashtrays and empty bottles littering his office. His sergeant Mehmet Süleyman, a pretty boy who is trying to resist the marriage arranged by his overbearing mother, tries to tidy up after his boss but only succeeds in making a bigger mess. They are called in to a particularly brutal murder in an impoverished section of town. The gruesome details of the murder of an elderly Jewish man have neo-Nazi overtones, a shocking development in Istanbul's relatively tolerant culture.

Much of the story follows Robert Cornelius, an Englishman teaching in a local school. Cornelius reminded me of the acronym from Old Filth: failed in London; try Hong Kong. The students in his Istanbul classroom may be bored and lazy, but at least they are not vicious like the British schoolboys who sent him packing. Cornelius is walking home from his classes when he spies his bafflingly remote girlfriend sneaking out of a building, the building which he later learns is the scene of the murder.

This is Nadel's first book, so some awkwardness in the writing and pacing may perhaps be forgiven. The Istanbul settings are vividly drawn, the author having spent much time in Turkey. There are plenty of plot twists, the last one being a bit too far-fetched for me, but not impossible. Nadel has gone on to write 14 more books in the Ikmen series, along with five other books in two more series, all of which seem to be quite popular, so clearly she has perfected her craft. And even with this first book, hey, I finished it!

Yes, I was sufficiently engaged to stay with it, although I did not find Ikmen appealing and was dismayed about halfway through the book to find him turning to mysticism for answers. What interested me about him were his family. His devotion to his wife, Fatma, pregnant with their ninth child, at first seems incomprehensible given her coldness and constant disapproval, but later scenes reveal a tenderness between them that touched me. Ikmen's father lives with them, angry and complaining most of the time, but helping with the children when asked and revealing a wealth of knowledge when consulted by his son. Their mutual respect amid the difficulties of old age and relative poverty is brought out with great subtlety.

Will I read more books in the series? Perhaps. I certainly enjoyed the settings, having gone through a little Istanbul phase a few years ago. The next time I discard a disappointing novel, I will be happy to turn to a book like this.

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