Turkish author Esmahan Aykol's debut novel, Hotel Bosphorus, is a little like an ultra exotic version of a Miss Marple murder mystery. It's probably a little more cozy mystery than gritty crime novel, but what it lacks in dark noirish deeds, it more than makes up for in its exoticism of setting. Aykol excels in portraying Istanbul as seen through the eyes of a foreigner who has come to love the city but recognizes how the various cultures often bump up against each other.
Kati Hirschel is one of the more intriguing amateur sleuths I've come across recently. Born in Istanbul of German parents she spent the first seven years of her life there before moving back to Germany, and has since returned and lived there for another thirteen. Her Turkish friends are convinced she has assimilated to the point of becoming a full fledged Istanbullu, and she'll be the first to defend her adopted city's customs and eccentricities while accepting (or at least being aware of) its blemishes. Kati is self-assured, fearless, and quite certain in her opinions, which she will happily share with you. Sometimes directly to the reader as she narrates her story in first-person. Forty-ish and attractive she owns the sole bookshop in Istanbul, which specializes in crime novels. She, of course, jumps at the chance to do a little extracurricular sleuthing the first chance she gets.
It seems Kati isn't so much interested in discovering a murderer and bringing him to justice as she is in seeking out the truth, and more importantly helping out a friend from college.
"I'd been reading crime fiction since my childhood, and selling it for the last three years. I was no longer just an ordinary reader. The time had come for me to offer my theoretical knowledge for the benefit of society."
As part of a German film company Petra Vogel has come to Istanbul to make a movie. Before filming is set to begin the director is found dead in his bath, the apparent victim of electrocution. All attention falls on Petra as she is the director's nearest neighbor in the luxurious Hotel Bosphorus and she was in the area at the time of his death. The two had suites next to each other. More damning is the fact that the two are said to be romantically involved. Kati has not seen Petra in years since their paths diverged after university, and before they even have time to catch up she feels called upon to defend her friend. Petra appears to have changed since their school days, aged and seemingly burdened by secrets.
Bits of Kati's past trickle out over the course of the story. Her father is dead and her mother lives on her own in Berlin. The two women aren't particularly close, but neither is a fan of the police. It's probably for this reason that Kati rebuffs the amorous attentions of the investigating officer on the case, Batuhan Önal, though she's happy to obtain whatever information from him she can get. She's particularly good at this as a matter of fact. She manages to question the head of the local mob with a certain panache before he's hauled off to jail on another crime entirely. All her questions and nosing about reveal little that sheds light on who might be the culprit. The Turkish police aren't willing to work with their German counterparts and seem to have a decided lack of evidence, so it's likely the case will be closed unsolved.
What's so interesting about Hotel Bosphorus is Aykol is a Turkish writer writing from a German character's perspective. Aykol splits her time between Istanbul and Berlin, and in the novel she explores the way the two cultures clash and stereotype each other. Although the mystery relies a tad too much on coincidence to move the plot along and the ending felt a little too rushed, she more than makes up for these shortcomings through her depiction of the two societies and her very adroit evocation of place and Turkish society in general. I could see the sun setting over the Golden Horn and feel the heat and claustrophobia of the traffic as well understand how badly tourists and visitors behave. And she does it all with a touch of humor.
This was a quick and entertaining read. If you enjoy crime stories with an international flair, this one is definitely off the beaten track. I've become quite a fan of Bitter Lemon Press and am happy to see them bringing more international crime novels to English speaking readers. Hotel Bosphorus is Esmahan Aykol's first Kati Hirschel mystery to be translated into English by Ruth Whitehouse. There are two more, which I hope will get translated as well. I should note that I jumped the gun on this one a little; it is due out in the US in July 2011. I'd never read a Turkish mystery/crime novel before and couldn't resist the temptation to start reading it right away. I hope to get the chance to read more of her work.
My copy came courtesy of Meryl Zegarek Public Relations.