Belshazzar’s Daughter, the first of a series highlighting Inspector Cetin Ikmen in each novel, is a police procedural set in modern-day Istanbul. Just like policemen everywhere, Ikmen works with painstaking precision to solve a heinous crime. The one in Belshazzar’s Daughter involves the murder of an elderly Jewish man and the unsettling appearance of a bloody swastika scrawled above his body. Ikmen, both eccentric and egocentric, pursues justice in his own special way. He reconstructs what he calls “biographies” by researching the life stories and backgrounds of the victim and the victim’s associates. His superiors insist on immediate results, while Ikmen prefers to dig into the past in a leisurely fashion. Only that way, he insists, will the present crime be understood and then solved.
In this case, the past involves both Jewish and Russian refugees in Istanbul, plus stories and family myths that reach back to the bloody 1918 overthrow of the Russian Romanovs. The cast of characters spans generations. Some took part in the Russian Revolution, others are offspring who inherited their parents’ and grandparents’ passions. None of the suspects is especially attractive. When Ikmen points out to his closest colleague that “this case has been the nastiest I have ever worked on,” he explains further that “there was absolutely nothing to like about any of the people involved in it. For one reason or another they were all absolutely selfish.”
Despite the fact that so many of the Belshazzar’s Daughter suspects are truly unpleasant individuals, their stories are compelling. As I read, I found myself hating their actions and interactions, yet unable to stop reading about them and constantly wondering how the main plot would finally unfold. The plausible and ultimately explosive denouement is another reason to read Barbara Nadel’s novel. This one ends with a structural twist that I would call refreshingly original. Most of the suspects come together, confessions ensue, and the reader learns what really happened and why. BUT Inspector Ikmen and his fellow police detectives are not present at the confession, and they never ever learn the actual truth.
The final chapters are speculative. Ikmen finishes putting the intertwined stories—as he imagines them—together, and his colleagues concur. The inspector’s versions are close to reality, but not quite accurate. The reader knows better. While this may sound a bit unsettling and unsatisfying, in fact it’s quite convincing. Then the plot takes one further twist. One of the most unsavory characters reappears, in a new guise, leading a new life, seemingly untouched by the previous four hundred and fifty pages of greed and guile.
I loved the plotting of Belshazzar’s Daughter, with its surprising, innovative narrative turns. I also enjoyed the Turkish setting, which takes the reader into areas of Istanbul both rich and poor. Turkey is never romanticized, however. It’s sights (and sites) and smells remain probable and real. Anyone who enjoys fiction set at a distance from the United States will enjoy Nadel’s novels. Thirteen of them feature Turkey and Inspector Cetin Ikmen; another four, set in London’s East End during World War II, star an undertaker, Francis Hancock. Now Nadel has begun still another series, also located in London’s East End but set in more modern times. I, for one, look forward to trying out some of her East End books, as well as reading more about Ikmen and his Turkish colleagues. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Barbara Nadel: Deadline; Dead of Night; Petrified; Deep Waters; A Chemical Prison; Arabesk; A Noble Killing; River of the Deead; Deadly Web; Dance with Death; Death by Design; The Ottoman Cage; A Passion for Killing; A Private Business (7/13); Last Rights; Pretty Dead Things; An Act of Kindness; Ashes to Ashes; Sure and Certain Death; After the Mourning; Back to the Future.