An Evil Eye

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am


An Evil Eye
by Jason Goodwin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Jason Goodwin's success has been due to intricate plots in well- researched historical settings, graphic descriptions of quirky customs and some interesting characters. He has made good use of his background as a student of Byzantine history at Cambridge who wrote history and travel books. Constantinople is the protagonist of his novels with Venice getting a supporting role in The Bellini Card. His Constantinople is the capital of an Ottoman empire struggling to reform itself to meet the threat of Russia pushing southwards. Goodwin provides insight into how it functions and here has chosen the crucial moment when a new young sultan has just come to power.

Yashim, the mainstay of the series, is a freelance detective employed by the rulers when they are faced by seemingly insolvable problems. In An Evil Eye he is asked to find out what is behind the killing of a Russian discovered in the well of an Orthodox monastery just before a Turkish admiral surrenders the whole Ottoman fleet to hostile Egypt, as happened in 1839. There is a submerged connection between the two occurrences.

Events are played out mainly in the sultan's harem which Goodwin, puncturing erotic fantasies, compares to girls' boarding school. In this case it is a boarding school where black magic takes its toll.

Goodwin may be talented enough to go one better than enjoyable genre fiction but An Evil Eye does not take this step.

Here Yashim's closest relationship is with Stanislaw Palewski, the Polish ambassador who lives in a seedy embassy and provides sage advice. The Yashim-Palewski pair are in fine fettle but it is not as satisfying as its predecessors, particularly The Janissary Tree and The Snake Stone.

This time the shrewd plotting has become convoluted and confusing. Disappointingly, the denouement is recounted mainly in explanatory dialogue rather than being shown. And the use of black magic does not move events convincingly.

Goodwin seems to have attempted to cash in too quickly on his deserved success. He promises a fifth series novel but should take his time about it.