The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

2006. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover. 299 pages.

For the challenge: Thriller & Suspense Reading Challenge

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Yashim is a eunuch entrusted by the Sultan to investigate into a couple of cases: the surfacing of soldiers’ mutilated dead bodies around Istanbul and the murder of one of the harem girls.  Yashim’s investigation raises up the specter of the supposedly obliterated Janissaries.  The Janissaries used to be the great protecting force of the Ottoman Empire before their corruption and rebellion were violently suppressed by the Sultan’s new military guard.


I am intrigued by mysteries and thrillers that have unusual settings – having a protagonist that isn’t white, for example or set in a offbeat location like Minneapolis, or – as in the case here – set outside the U.S. in a historical period I know only a little about.

I’d read Peter Mansfield’s A History of the Middle East last year, which was useful, if a little dry.  As its coverage was so broad, Mansfield’s book left me wanting to read more focused accounts of the period of history that were mentioned, fiction or non-fiction.  That is how The Janissary Tree came to my attention.

Certainly The Janissary Tree contains some interesting nuggets about Istanbul in 1836.  However, while the historical research bits are not what travel writer Sara Wheeler called in her first book “undigested slabs”, they are not completely integrated with the rest of the story either.

I would describe the book’s primary point-of-view as third-person narrative, mostly from Yashim’s perspective but from others as well.  When historical notes were added into the narrative, it was sometimes hard to tell if this was knowledge that Yashim (or the other person) possessed, or if it was just an omniscient point-of-view popping in for a spell.  I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, so I’m not sure how common this is, but it lent an uneven air to the storytelling.

I was overall disappointed in the book.  The mystery was convoluted and lacking in adequate tension for my tastes.  Yashim was interesting as a type of person (not a lot of eunuch protagonists out there!) but past that, I fear he is not of enough interest for me to want to continue with the series.

That said, I noticed that Jason Goodwin has written some travel memoirs, such as On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul and those might be more to my taste.

Other Reviews:

Between the Covers – “The Istanbul of 1836 lives and breathes – and rattles and reeks – on the page.”

Blogging for a Good Book – “As in today’s Middle East, issues of modernization versus tradition, the importance of religious observance, and the rise of fundamentalism are a source of conflict in these tales, and that conflict affects all levels of society.”

Curious Book Fans – “I must conclude that I found Yashim very interesting but the author failed to develop the character and he seemed anchorless within the story whereas more minor characters seemed quite grounded.”

Grumpy Old Bookman – “. . . However, the author is inexperienced in the field of fiction, and it shows. And in my view the ending is too subtle for its own good.”


Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers

5 responses to “The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

  1. This sounds different and interesting. Will check out my library for this one to see if I like it.

  2. Aw, that’s too bad about it not being a decent read. I was interested too in the unusual setting and protagonist, but if it doesn’t live up to expectations then I think I’ll pass.

    Have you read Dissolution or A Conspiracy of Paper? You might be interested in them– they’re historical mysteries with unusual protagonists (a hunchback in one and an ex-boxer Jewish fellow in the other). I liked A Conspiracy of Paper a bit more than Dissolution, but they were both good.

  3. sam – the ‘differentness’ of the setting is definitely a draw!

    Anastasia – Ooh, thanks for the recommendations! I feel like I’ve heard of A Conspiracy of Paper somewhere before, but Dissolution is new to me.

  4. Ugh, it’s terrible when I start fretting over narrative authenticity. The authors should just put it in a note at the end – which I love actually, I am always flipping to the end of historical fiction books to see if the authors have put in a wee afterword to say what was fact and what they made up.

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