One of the great pleasures to be obtained from reading crime fiction is that most crime writers are acutely aware of both the geography and the mood of the communities that they write about. I won’t claim that there is such a thing as national character – I know that I shall immediately be shot down in flames if I even hint at it – but I’m certain that the massive popularity that Scandinavian crime writers have achieved owes a significant debt to the ambience of their work: the dark nights and cold days that they evoke, which in turn inspire brooding and melancholy characters who seem determined always to spot the worm in the bud, despite the consummate beauty of their surroundings. Similarly, the novels of Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin, which are set in Italy, skilfully succeed in communicating the rich cultural heritage of that country.
No-one, however, captures the essence or psyche of a country better than Barbara Nadel. Perhaps I should say city, rather than country, as all of her novels that I’ve read have been set in Istanbul. With apparent ease, she captures the contradictions of a city that has always looked both East and West: its exoticism and squalor; the brutality of some of its people and the sophisticated philosophical outlook of others; the thrusting modernity that jostles but does not oust more ancient superstitions. Other writers have written eloquently about this city, especially Orhan Pamuk, whose Nobel prize-winning work, so exquisitely wrought, seems to derive its depth from these very contradictions; yet, in my opinion, no-one, not even Pamuk, surpasses Nadel’s descriptions of Istanbul’s mean streets and boisterous crowds when she is writing at her best.
I’ve read three or four of her books now. I particularly admire her depiction of her world-weary but wise and humorous detective, Çetin Ikmen, who is beleaguered not only by the absurdities of red tape and the inefficiency and bigotry of his colleagues at work, but also by his large, unruly and ever-growing extended family at home. The latter is presided over by his ebullient and chaotic, much less well-educated wife, Fatma.
Harem is a particularly accomplished novel, because it examines issues of profound significance in Western countries through the filter of setting them in Istanbul. This not only makes it easier for the Western European reader to read about them, but also points up the dual thinking still prevalent in almost all countries by presenting it as a peculiarly Turkish phenomenon. This provokes the immediate response: ‘That couldn’t happen here!’, followed soon afterwards by: ‘Or could it?’ The original crimes committed in Harem are rape and the exploitation of women, leading in some instances to murder. The first of the murder victims is Hatice, a friend of Ikmen’s teenage daughter Hulya. Nadel’s account of Ikmen’s boss’s reluctance to pursue the girl’s murderers and bring them to justice because she evidently was not a virgin before they attacked her is particularly poignant. We might try to flatter ourselves that such an attitude could not prevail in our country, were it not that only in the last few days a British barrister has described a thirteen-year-old girl against whom sexual offences were committed as ‘predatory’. Nor does Nadel pull her punches when it comes to describing the perpetrators of rape. Hatice had unwittingly become involved with a group of people practising organised depravity, but her case is mirrored by one even closer to home for Ikmen, that of the abusive relationship that exists between two of his own police officers. As one would expect from a writer of Nadel’s talent, the moral conclusions that she draws are complex, but she is quite clear that women should never suffer from sexual abuse, whatever their personal moral code. This message may seem obvious, yet it is one that societies everywhere seem to be taking a long time to digest. Harem makes a very valuable contribution to the debate.
Of the other characters, several old friends feature in this novel. My particular favourite is Mehmet Suleyman, Ikmen’s disdainfully aristocratic colleague, who in this book finds himself less able than usual to sail, cosseted and immaculate, through his life, as if the teeming, grubby throng of humanity that it is his job to police does not really exist. Suleyman’s volatile Irish wife is suffering from post-natal depression and he has to run the gauntlet of her tantrums and her misery. And then there is Fatma, impossible but lovable, weaving her idiosyncratic magic on her weary but essentially adoring husband.
I wholeheartedly recommend Harem. If you’re new to Barbara Nadel, you won’t lose anything by starting with this book, as, despite being one of a series, it stands completely on its own, as such novels should. However, I’m certain that, if you do read Harem first, it will make you also want to sample some of the others.