This intricate mystery is set in the exotic locale of nineteenth-century Turkey, the Ottoman Empire in turmoil, the British insinuating themselves into local politics in an effort to stabilize the region and discourage an alliance with the Russians.
When a European governess is found drowned, the investigation falls to the local magistrate of the region, Kamil Pasha, who determines with the assistance of his medical examiner that the lady has been murdered. When the deceased is identified as Mary Dixon, a governess in the Sultan’s household, Kamil’s task is made decidedly more difficult.
The magistrate probes for information from reluctant subjects, sorting through truths and half-truths, the most troubling evidence a silver necklace found on Mary’s body that leads him to the death of yet another European governess in the Sultan’s employ a few years earlier.
Separating truth from falsehood is complicated in a political climate where intrigue is endemic to court life. Treading lightly lest he offend, Kamil interviews a variety of persons who may hold the key to Mary’s sudden demise, the mystery made more difficult by the constraints of a society with rigid standards of behavior, each new clue fraught with ambiguity. Most prefer that this distasteful subject be put to rest before anyone important is embarrassed.
The investigation is an agonizingly slow process, Turkish bureaucracy layered with ritual, bribery, social agendas and self-protection. The magistrate must navigate the subtle tension between cultures, attuned to recent political uncertainties, the British presence disturbing the balance of the old ways and threatening the future.
From the royal palaces to the home of the English ambassador, Kamil uncovers intrigues and is unexpectedly attracted to an unlikely young woman - the English ambassador’s daughter, Sybil. It is she who discovers the critical piece of information, available through her friendship with the women of the harem, although, in her naiveté and desire to please the conscientious magistrate, she unwittingly puts herself in grave danger.
With an assortment of characters straight out of the pages of Scheherazade, The Sultan’s Seal brims with powerful men, sly servants, eunuchs, the manipulations of the Sultan’s harem and a young woman who suffers the rejection of society after a brutal attack that ruins her hope for marriage.
The murders are clouded with layers of deceit, passion and betrayal, Kamil intent on unraveling what was meant to remain secret. White’s prose is dramatic, a subtle mix of fiction and history. The Ottoman Empire struggles against outside influences and the inevitability of change, “new” science versus traditional religion in a patriarchal society that forces women to forge their own rules, jealousy fomenting in silence, power sheathed in a velvet glove but still as deadly.