Jenny White, an anthropologist and the author of numerous nonfiction works on Turkish society and politics, has written a real winner with her debut novel, "The Sultan's Seal." A historical mystery with a bit of romance thrown in, this book makes for an unputdownable read! Ms. White paints a remarkably vivid portrait of life in 19th century Turkey, from the luxurious sultan's palaces to the most squalid slums of Istanbul, and writes intelligently of the political turmoil of the period.
Set in the ancient city "Stanbul" on the Bosphorus in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, (1886), political intrigue, espionage and social upheaval are rife, even in the sultan's harem. "Young Turks," a reformist and strongly nationalist group of men, forced the restoration of the constitution of 1876. This new generation of Ottoman political thinkers were convinced that the Empire would never be truly modernized until it had adopted a democratic government and a constitution rather than undiluted power in the hands of the sultan. Gathering secretly in Istanbul, then in exile in Europe, "these reformers propagandized against the governments of Ali Pasha then, when Ali died in 1871, against the increasingly autocratic rule of Sultan Abdulaziz." There is a tremendous struggle taking place to find a middle ground between traditional values of the non-secular East and the very different, more progressive ways of the West.
Meanwhile, the Ottoman defeat in the war of 1877 against Russia imposed an indemnity of $100,000,000 on the Turkish government. By 1881 the whole empire went into receivership. "The British, French, Dutch, German, Austrian and Italian creditors set up the Council of Administration of the Ottoman Public Debt and took control of certain revenues." The nineteenth century came to an end with the Ottomans under the political and economic domination of European powers and the threat of Western domination is obvious during the period the "The Sultan's Seal" takes place.
Kamil Pasha, our protagonist, is a magistrate in the new secular courts of Istanbul. He is extremely intelligent, a modern man with a good understanding of the foreign community as he had been educated in both England and Istanbul. When the naked body of an English woman is discovered floating in the Bosphorus in Pasha's district, he begins an investigation, making the acquaintanceship of the English ambassador's daughter, Sybil, in the process. The dead woman, a governess in the royal harem, was wearing a pendant inscribed with the tughra, or seal, of the sultan. Sybil, an independent and attractive young woman devoted to her ailing father, assists Kamil by contributing information she compiles through her connections in the royal harem.
Kamil Pasha ties this case to an almost identical death that occurred eight years before when another palace governess was found murdered, wearing the same pendant, which cannot be reproduced without the approval of the palace.
This is truly an unusual detective story filled with a wide range of fascinating characters set against a rich and mysterious backdrop that was Istanbul at the end of the nineteenth century.
One of my favorite characters, Jaanan, is another independent and well educated woman about the same age as Sybil. She is Turkish, and the niece of a respected jurist and scholar. Her story, filled with adventure and tragedy, ties in with the main plot and is every bit as interesting.
Ms. White's writing is as sensuous as the shimmering harem silks and the waters of the Bosphorus she describes so eloquently. I really enjoyed this wonderful novel and highly recommend it.