“Constantinople was like an exotic dream full of spice and music and beauty—the scent of cardamom blew through the streets like a fresh wind—but at the same time, it had a distinct and surprising European feel.”
Reading a Tasha Alexander book is simply pure pleasure. Four books into her series about Lady Emily Ashton—widowed in the first novel, now happily married in the fourth—she’s managed to keep her historical formula fresh by changing the location with each book. In the last, Lady Emily was in Vienna; in this novel, she’s in Constantinople visiting harems. Emily and her new husband, Colin Hargreaves, have made the journey to Constantinople on the Orient Express—a lavishly described journey that has one little hiccup in the form of Sir Richard St. Clare. Emily and Colin join Sir Richard for dinner one night, and he tells them his sad story—he lived a life of roaming adventure with his young family, until his wife was murdered and his young daughter kidnaped. His son is still living but Sir Richard’s desire to find his missing daughter has never dimmed. During the course of the dinner, Sir Richard passes out and must be removed from the dining car. The next day, he discovers some papers have been stolen, and Emily has a hard time forgetting his plight, though Colin does his best to get her to try.
When they arrive in Constantinople, the sight of the exotic city and the beauty of the yah, or summer home on the water where they are to spend their honeymoon, serves as a distraction. One evening they are invited by Sir Richard (who works at the embassy) to attend a production of La Traviata at the Sultan’s Palace. They enjoy the evening (though are puzzled when Traviata has a happy ending), but the night ends with the terrified screams of a concubine throwing herself at the Sultan’s feet. The body of another young concubine is discovered, murdered—and she appears to be the long missing daughter of Sir Richard, Ceyden. Emily is now firmly involved, and thanks to Colin’s standing at the embassy, and the fact that no male but the Sultan or a Eunuch can enter the harem, Emily is made an official agent of inquiry.
One of the main pleasures of this novel, for me at least, was the lush setting and the background of the world behind the scenes in the harems. While it’s agreed that the Ottoman women have no freedom, at the same time, Emily can’t help but compare the ease at which the concubines move about the city—clothed in burkas that veil their destinations—with the restrictions of a typical British marriage. She even visits one of the baths, a true contrast in East vs. Western values, or at least in differing standards of modesty. And by speaking and being granted access to the valide sultan (the mother of the sultan, of which there are two, one being more powerful) she is able to begin to unravel the story behind the death of Ceyden. Meanwhile Sir Richard seems to be slipping off the edge of grief, and has taken to his bed, apparently under the influence of some type of drug.
Alexander, while a gifted historical writer—you feel you are really “there” as she sets a scene—is also very much a traditional mystery writer. The clues, red herrings and twists she supplies are the same type of elements that are present in any good mystery. This could hardly be a more heady combination—a great main character, an indelible setting, and a terrific mystery all at once. Since I love both mysteries and historicals, with a touch of romance included, these books are, for me, practically irresistible. While not as dark as Anne Perry or even Victoria Thompson, Alexander still doesn’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of the lives of the Victorians. It’s a perfect mixture for a happy evening’s read.