Monthly Archives: March 2012

Not Nancy Mitford

The dashing girl whose picture I posted yesterday has been identified as – among others –  Mulan, Maria Walewska (closer), Lady Hester Stanhope, Maria Lebstuck, the Contessa d’Aspi d’Istria (from The Bellini Card), Juana Galan, Lady Chatterton and the young Nancy Mitford.

No. She ain’t any one of them. And the only person who got it right so far is my sister Tabitha, who just knows a lot – but she can’t have the prize copy of An Evil Eye because she’s got one already and anyway family members are debarred from winning, as it says on the cornflake packets.

But here’s a clue or two: Stanislaw Palewski would have both known and admired her, and mourned her passing in 1831 at the tender age of 25.

Here she is, doing her thing the year she died. And that really is a clue.

Another portrait – and a quiz

One of the joys of writing historical novels, crime or otherwise, is discovering real-life characters and making them part of the story.

I’ve recently become devoted to this young lady. Note the sword, and the fly-away hair – and just begin to guess her life history!


To tell the truth, it all ends rather sadly, especially for Ambassador Palewski, Yashim’s old friend. That’s a clue by the way.

Any ideas? Email me secretly at and a copy of An Evil Eye to the first right answer: who is she?

Gentleman with – ouch!

A reader just wrote to me about her research into Turkish knives, especially the curved knives used for cutting up borek and baklava. She had prompted by visiting Aygun Bozdogan at Kalite Bicak, the little cutler’s shop between the Spice Bazaar and Rustem Pasha Mosque.

His collection is quite astonishing, from the tiniest shiny penknife that the Valide might wield to huge meat choppers for mincing lamb for a kebab. Obvious destination for a crime writer…

I did an interview with him a couple of years ago, with a reading from The Snake Stone:

Hope you enjoy this! ‘Like’ it and share it if you want…

Lady with – ouch!

One of the joys of writing is Doing Research – ie, not actually writing at all but following a hunch.

The hunch I’ve been following up today is the story of the Czartoryski family, formerly Princes of Lithuania, whose beautiful museum in Cracow contains – among many wonderful things, including full suits of Sarmatian armour, with wings – Leonardo’s sinisterly captivating Lady with Ermine.

I first saw this painting in 1984, when Poland was under martial law; and again in 1990, when I walked through Cracow on my way to Istanbul. I saw it there a couple of years ago, too, but missed it when it came to the National Gallery last Winter. Forget the Mona Lisa’s smile – this Lady is far more mysterious!


The Czartoryski I’m interested in is Adam (1770-1861), who was at different times Russia’s foreign minister and also President of the Polish National Government  in 1830, when the Poles rose in revolt against Russia. A little like the Georgian Shevardnadze, perhaps, who was the USSR’s foreign minister and later President of independent Georgia.

Though the Prince never went to Istanbul himself, he sent Michał Czajkowski, a trusted lieutenant there in 1842 to investigate the possibility of creating a Polish enclave on the Bosphorus, where Poles exiled after the failure of their rebellion could settle.

The remarkable thing is that Czajkowski succeeded: a village called Adampol, or Adamköy, still exists about twenty miles outside Istanbul, and people there still speak Polish. What’s more, Czajkowski stayed in Turkey, converted to Islam, and served in the Ottoman army as Sadyk Pasha, in charge of a regiment of Ottoman Cossacks.

I feel sure that Ambassador Palewski, Yashim’s old friend, must have had something to do with it all…

Don’t get lost…

Last night I was invited to attend a book club which meets in the oldest continuously-inhabited house in Dorset. We gathered in the old hall, with three beautiful 13th century lancet windows overlooking the croquet lawn. It was our host’s great-grandmother, I think, who had that part of the moat filled in for croquet. How civilised! We drank Venetian wine and nibbled on baklava, and people talked about the Yashim books, politely.

Something that emerged from the talk was the glaring demand for a map to accompany the books, and maybe a cast-list for people who get lost among the unfamiliar names. Let me know what you think.

Here is a pretty clear map of Istanbul/Constantinople, showing some of the major landmarks.


As I wrote in Lords of the Horizons,  ‘Constantinople resembled the head of a dog, pointing east on a triangular peninsula. Over its nose the channel of the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus; its throat is caressed by the Sea of Marmara; and the land walls erected by Theodosius in the fifth century are slung across as a sort of huge loose collar from ear to chest…’

You can see the Phanariot Quarter – modern-day Fener – incorporating Balat, where Yashim lives. Pera, across the Golden Horn, was the ‘European’ quarter’, and Ambassador Palewski’s Residence stands a little inland from Tophane, among the foreign embassies.

The Galata Tower, one of the fire-fighter’s watch points in The Janissary Tree, is here labelled Christ Tower, and Topkapi palace, home of the sultans and their harems, is called the New Seraglio. The church of Hagia Sophia is just outside its walls. The Hippodrome, or Atmeidan, is the site of the Serpent Column in The Snake Stone.

Of the two bridges shown across the Golden Horn, only the more easterly Galata bridge existed in Yashim’s time: its construction features in An Evil Eye.

Would the real Jane Eyre please stand up?

I’ve been asked by a charity, Action Against Hunger, to help at a fundraiser in London next month. Not by handing round the canapés at dinner, nor by donating a signed set of Yashim novels, and certainly not by writing out a cheque.

Instead, we are going to auction off a character in my next Yashim story – the one provisionally entitled The Latin Reader. Guests at the gala dinner will be asked to bid to have their name – or the name of someone they love – presented as a player in the forthcoming tale of revolution and betrayal.

Here’s the link:

It’s not the first time it has been done, of course. The great Fay Weldon supposedly raised £18,000 by promising to mention the name of a famous jeweller 12 times in a novel called, guess what, The Bulgari Connection. Lee Child, the bestselling thriller writer, once told me that the name of a character in 61 Hours – the lady who’s always on the phone to Jack Reacher – was bought at a charity auction.

How far does it go? Was Mrs Dalloway in fact the wife of a wealthy industrialist? Or Ebenezer Scrooge: could he have been a generous philanthropist after all? Was Hercules Poirot an eighty-year old Belgian detective? Maybe not: maybe Agatha Christie simply hired him out, naming him after the bouncing newborn son of M and Mme Poirot, rich snail-farmers from Quimper?

My own small contribution to the genre does present me with a certain obvious challenge. Not many Ottoman pashas were known as John Smith, or Lavinia Hardy, or Ted Buxter, or whoever might be bidding on the night. Will there be any Turks at the gala? I could use an Italian, as it happens, and possibly an Irishman. But if the bid goes to, say, a Jade Hanratty or a Carol Martin…

But there you are. It’s often a good thing to write around a restriction. Who knows what role Sylvester Branksome-Pyke might play in 1840s Istanbul?

What fun to imagine…!

Tulipomania – (almost) too beautiful for words

A reader’s suggestion for putting tulips in the garden reminds me of this passage in my history of the Ottomans, Lords of the Horizons:

The tulip was the emblem of the Ottoman royal house, worked into textiles and inlay, and celebrated in poetry: the romantic tulip of Central Asia, that is, a lyre-shaped flower with pointed petals. For a brief period at the end of the seventeenth century the tulip’s sway in the Ottoman garden was challenged by melons and cucumbers; but under Ahmet III in the 1720s it came back into favour with a frenzy which recalled, in its less sordid aspects, the tulipomania of seventeenth-century Holland.

The Dutch mania had been a speculator’s bubble. In Turkey tulipomania came to symbolise the hedonism of the court. Sultan Ahmet III had so many children that with all the births, circumcisions and daughters’ weddings a permanent holiday atmosphere reigned in the Seraglio. ‘Let us laugh, let us play, let us enjoy the delights of the world to the full,’ wrote the court poet Nedim, a particular favourite of Sultan Ahmet’s. Grizzled old kapudan pashas stooped tenderly over the bulbs with little trowels; the head gardener laid his executioner’s tools aside, and dazzling were the nightly displays in the palace in the fleeting growing season. The French ambassador described such an evening at the house of Grand Vizier Damad Ibrahim Pasha in 1726:

When the tulips are in flower, and the Grand Vizier wishes to show them to the sultan, care is taken to fill the gaps where the tulips have come up blind, by flowers taken from other gardens and placed in bottles. Beside every fourth flower is stood a candle, level with the bloom, and along the alleys are hung cages filled with all kinds of birds. The trellises are all decorated with an enormous quantity of flowers of every sort, placed in bottles and lit by an infinite number of glass lamps of different colours. These lamps are also hung on the green branches of shrubs which are specially transplanted for the fete from neighbouring woods and placed behind the trellises. The effect of all these varied colours, and of the lights which are reflected by countless mirrors, is said to be magnificent. The illuminations, and the noisy consort of Turkish musical instruments which accompanies them, continue nightly so long as the tulips remain in flower, during which time the Grand Seigneur and his whole suite are lodged and fed at the expense of the Grand Vizier…

For ten years the whole of Constantinople gave itself over to illusions of fairyland. Giant turtles bearing flickering candelabra paddled through the Seraglio grounds. ‘Sometimes the court appears floating on the waters of the Bosphorus or the Golden Horn, in elegant caiques, covered with silken tents; sometimes it moves forward in a long cavalcade towards one or another of the pleasure palaces… These processions are made especially attractive by the beauty of the horses and the luxury of their caparisons; they progress, with golden or silver harnesses and plumed foreheads, their coverings resplendent with precious stones.’

At the back of it, though, lay policy desperate and inspired: it was all the handiwork of a single Grand Vizier, Damad Ibrahim Pasha, who feverishly worked the silken threads…

From Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire

Getting the plot right

There are plenty of reasons why writers find it hard to get on with their books. In The Enemies of Promise, the critic Cyril Connolly famously defined one of them as The Pram in the Hall. He did not mention The Seed Catalogue, but then Connolly was not, I imagine, much of a vegetable gardener.

So here I am, ostensibly working on the plot of the fifth Yashim novel, while actually planning another plot altogether.

This our third year at Little Berwick, a hill away from the sea, and we are going for the full cornucopia. In the walled garden, where we inherited two vegetable plots, we have dug four more out of the lawn. Frost and rain, a little of both, have prepared the soil over the winter months and this weekend, trusting in the warmth of Spring, I planted four rows of broad – or fava – beans and two of an onion called Red Baron. Potatoes won’t do in the new plots for a few years yet – there’s too much eelworm under the old grass; and anyway, potato haulms aren’t beautiful. These new beds are going to be as good to look at as to eat. That’s how the Ottomans did their gardens, too, mixing vegetables with flowers.

Old beds and new

So what’s going in? Peas, of course, and shallots; leeks, cabbages and kale; yellow climbing beans – not standard runners, which set too hard and grow suddenly huge and stringy; squashes and courgettes, including the yellow sort; a dozen different sort of salad leaf, including rocket and radicchio, popping up at timely intervals between the rows; and last year’s artichokes, ready to soar this year, with their sculptural grey spikes and purple-greenish heads. I’d like a row or two of colourful chard, and spinach. Turnips for eating raw when they’re small, with a dab of cold butter; carrots for salads, and carrots for winter; beetroot – I’ve been sent a packet of white beetroot seeds by a lady who owns the late Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s bed, so I will sow those.

If I can get some glass up in time (Yashim permitting) I will dive into tomatoes and peppers and try an aubergine or two, and great pots of basil. Coriander, too – the Ottomans used much more in their cooking than the modern Turks.

Last year was superb for fruit – the old pears and apples against the walls did beautifully – but my Italian-sourced seeds were pretty poor, and the courgettes were miserable. This year I’m following with the genius loci and sticking to traditional, domestic seeds – but all ideas for Ottoman-inspired plants and vegetables would be very welcome!

Quiz – the winner is …

Thanks to all of you who entered the quiz competition – and to anyone who found the answers staring them in the face, and thought better of trying, my apologies! I hadn’t foreseen that the responses might be posted automatically for all to see, so next time I’ll do it by email, secretly.

‘Orchid’ wins – she’s from New York, and she answered the questions via a link on Goodreads. Well done to her, and I hope you enjoy the books!

The answers in order are – Martinique, Marta and dolma.