The Bellini Card
Jason Goodwin
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Buy *The Bellini Card* by Jason Goodwin online

The Bellini Card
Jason Goodwin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
304 pages
March 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Turkophile Jason Goodwin's first Yashim mystery, The Janissary Tree, introduced readers to the Ottoman Istanbul of the early 19th century. This was followed by The Snake Stone, another journey to uncover the secret societies, the dark alleys and the machinations and conspiracies of the Ottoman world. Dark secrets and secret societies notwithstanding, these books and their plots are conduit through which present-day readers can discover the lost world of the Ottoman empire - a world of dank corners, lost books and relics, and secrets so dark that the mere hint of their revelation will result in the most brutal of murders. It is also a world of immense beauty, of majestic palaces and lovely arches and achingly beautiful and vulnerable women.

A major attraction of the series is protagonist Yashim Togalu, who doubles as a detective. The fact that Yashim is a eunuch does not in any way hinder his sexual escapades in Goodwin's plot. Since the first book of the series, the question of "how much" of a eunuch he is has been left unanswered. But he is harmless enough to have access to the royal harem, and to have the affection of the Sultan's mother, the Valide Sultan, with whom he exchanges books.

Yashim (and by extension Goodwin; I recall reading that the author was a food aficionado) has a passion for cooking that ensures a liberal sprinkling of lip-smacking recipes throughout the narrative. To be honest, it is also something that keeps me hooked on the series. I never cease to be mesmerized when he fries his onions and shallots or carefully examines his veggies before buying them. Here is a sampler:

In the signora's frying pan Yashim fried slices of aubergine in oil. He chopped tomatoes roughly and put them into the pan with a pinch of salt and sugar, stirring them from time to time.

He peeled and chopped a few cloves of garlic, which followed the onions into the cauldron. When the onions were soft he stirred in a couple of pounds of minced lamb.

The meat browned. He threw in a big pinch of cinnamon, a bunch of torn basil, and the tomatoes. In the milk pan he melted butter and flour to make a thick roux. He added milk slowly, keeping the pan at the edge of the fire. When he had the sauce he sprinkled it salt and a pinch of grated nutmeg.
In The Bellini Card, Sultan Abdulmecid asks for Yashim's services to bring back for him a portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror painted by Gentile Bellini in 1479 that seems to be in Venice. His vizier, Reshid Pasha, approaches Yashim as well, but with a veiled threat if he goes traipsing across Venice to obtain it. So Yashim, the ever resourceful sends his old friend, the Polish ambassador Palewski, in his stead. Palewski poses as American art dealer Signor Brett, but his arrival in Venice sparks a series of murders, all of which seem to be connected in one way or another to the Bellini painting.

The characters, though colorful, are somewhat cliched; this does not in any way diminish the strength of the plot. There is the charming Antonio Ruggiero, the beautiful Contessa d'Aspi d'Istria (with whom Yashim has the mandatory sex scene), the mute painter, the staid Maria, and a host of other characters, all flowing in and out of the plot against the backdrop of an exquisite Venice with its spectacular architecture. An enjoyable read for art lovers and foodies.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Shampa Chatterjee, 2009

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