Intrigue in Istanbul is the fourth book in Erica Ruth Neubauer’s Jane Wunderly series, featuring an American war widow in the 1920s. Each book has a different setting: the first takes place in Egypt, the second at an English country manor, the third on a transatlantic voyage on the sister ship of the Titanic, and the fourth, obviously, in Istanbul. Neubauer makes great use of the setting in each of her books, and this is no exception. She takes the reader to Istanbul along with Jane, as her intrepid heroine searches for her missing father as well as a legendary relic. This is a tribute to Indiana Jones, but with some significant nods to Agatha Christie.
The beginning of the book finds Jane in Boston with her fiancé, the handsome Englishman Redvers. She wants to introduce him to her father, but when she arrives at her childhood home, she finds that her father, a historian who fits the “absent-minded professor” type perfectly, has left for Istanbul and taken out an enormous loan against the house. Jane has two weeks to find her father and repay the loan, or the bank will take the house. Not only is the house the place where she grew up, but it holds all her memories of her mother, who died when Jane was very young.
When she arrives in Istanbul, Jane finds, much to her frustration, that her father has left the city without his luggage, and her overbearing aunt Millie has arrived, along with her fiancé Lord Hughes. Jane is too proud to ask Millie to come up with the money to save the house, even though Millie can afford to pay it. Shortly after her arrival, Jane meets with an archivist who was one of the last people to see her father before he left Istanbul, but the only information he can give her about her father’s whereabouts is a cryptic riddle.
It turns out that Jane’s father was looking for the heart of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, a relic which supposedly gives mystical powers to whoever possesses it. The heart is said to be buried in a golden case, which is in itself of enormous value and would, of course, allow Jane and her father to save their home. Jane’s father had been looking for the heart since her mother was alive, and it holds important memories for him. He has recently joined an expedition to find the heart, but the leader turned out to be a con artist who took Jane’s father’s money and then abandoned the expedition. And so Jane’s father is now looking for the heart on his own.
Soon Jane and Redvers realize they are being followed. At first Redvers thinks this has something to do with his previous trip to Istanbul. As is slowly revealed throughout the series, Redvers works for a British intelligence organization, and the nature of his work becomes a little clearer with each book. Then they discover that Millie and Lord Hughes are also being followed, and so they realize it has to do with Jane’s father, not Redvers’ work.
The archivist who had been helping Jane and Redvers ends up getting murdered shortly after he revealed an important clue to the couple. His brother, a rather unsavory character who shows little grief at his brother’s death, offers to take his place as their translator, but Jane doesn’t trust him. She has no choice, though, since she and Redvers don’t speak Turkish.
As she continues her quest, Jane finds a trail of enigmatic clues in letters left by her father at various sites in Istanbul, in all of which he warns her not to go after him: advice which Jane, of course, ignores. Wherever they go, Jane and Redvers find they’re being followed. Soon Jane finds that there is a new woman in her father’s life, which she is unhappy about, since she considers it a betrayal of her mother’s memory. Then she meets with a Russian nightclub singer who obviously has a past with Redvers. These two women will play important roles in Jane’s journey. Meanwhile, as Jane continues her search, the bodies start to pile up.
From the clues her father has left behind, Jane discovers that the sultan’s heart is supposed to be buried in Hungary. She and Redvers and their companions travel on the Orient Express from Istanbul to Budapest and, in an obvious nod to Agatha Christie, a man is stabbed to death on the Orient Express. I love the dialogue between Jane and Redvers that takes place before the body is found, where Jane, a big fan of Christie, wishes the author would set a mystery on the Orient Express.
Jane and Redvers are met with further intrigue and murder after they get to Hungary. Will they find Jane’s father and the sultan’s heart? That, of course, would be a spoiler. I will say, though, that the ending is quite satisfactory and promises the series will continue, without being a cliffhanger.
I loved Neubauer’s descriptions of Istanbul, a vibrant city at the crossroads between East and West. At this time the Turkish government was trying to modernize the city, and people have begun wearing Western clothes. Jane makes many observations about the differences between Istanbul and Cairo, which she had visited in the first book in the series, with the clothing in Cairo being much more traditional. The book makes you want to visit Istanbul. The descriptions make you hungry for Turkish food and thirsty for Turkish coffee, which Jane loves. Neubauer also has an interesting author’s note about whether the city was called Istanbul or Constantinople at the time the book takes place. The city’s name was not officially changed until 1930, but the inhabitants had been calling it Istanbul for many years before that.
The relationship between Jane and Redvers, an important part of the series, does not really progress in this book, which is my only disappointment. Jane is in no hurry to rush into marriage, which is understandable since her first husband was cruel and abusive. She knows Redvers is nothing like her first husband, but she would still rather have a long engagement. The Russian singer hints that Redvers might have a cruel side, but, as he points out, she is a compulsive liar, and so Jane (and the reader) decides not to believe her. The very end of the book does, however, suggest that the couple’s relationship will soon make more progress.
Although Intrigue in Istanbul stands on its own, I highly recommend that you start the series with the first book, Murder at the Mena House. The characters’ relationships, especially that of the central couple, are very important, and you won’t get the full picture unless you follow the series from the beginning. Jane is a delightful heroine, intelligent and adventurous, and the enigmatic Redvers is the perfect partner for her. I can’t wait to find out where the couple’s adventures will take them next. — Vicki Kondelik
Vicki Kondelik is a cataloger at the University of Michigan’s Graduate Library, and edits their book review blog, Lost in the Stacks. She writes book reviews for the Historical Novel Society, and is currently writing a historical novel. She has been an avid mystery reader for a long time.