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Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol (translated by Ruth Whitehouse) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) is a story about the life of Kati Hirschel. She’s forty-four years old and lives in Istanbul where she runs a shop specialising in mystery and detective fiction. We find her in a moment of crisis. She’s had a major argument with her lover, a lawyer, and her landlady is preparing to impose a big surcharge on her current rent. Her reaction is simple and direct. She will find a new place to live, even if this means entering the treacherous waters of the baksheesh market. For those of you not familiar with the ways of the world outside Europe and America, the majority of civil servants and other people in positions of authority are chronically underpaid. But since they often control access to essential bureaucracy, they can achieve a living wage by taking a little extra money on the side to move people through the system more quickly or, if appropriate, to keep people out of the relevant system altogether. For these purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether you call these payments a tip or a small gift, the majority in the West will condemn this approach to life as corrupt and reject the actual or implied requests for payment. This is to misunderstand the culture.

In fact, the payments also reflect respect for the individual and the work he or she does, and a real sense of gratitude when the work is done well. But to navigate the social conventions and taboos, all the parties have to be in tune with each other. Although our heroine has real experience through living in Turkey for many years and speaks the language well, this is her first interaction with this method of acquiring a new home. Perhaps if her relationship had not just broken down or she did not feel so under pressure, she would have approached this transaction in a better frame of mind. But she lacks the patience and subtlety. Sadly this persuades her to try visiting the places she may be allowed to buy. The fact there may still be people living there who are not be aware of any threat to their continuing occupation does not occur to our heroine. She just wants to make quick unannounced viewings of her potential home. Sadly, in one block, this leads to a major argument. Threats are made. The following day, the man she fought with is dead and she’s a suspect. Well, again, in Turkey this is not a certainty. The police insist people come down to the station to make statements for even the most trivial of incidents. But she feels under threat and so, drawing on her love of detective fiction, she sets off the solve the crime.

Esmahan Aykol

Esmahan Aykol

This is a wonderful book. As a first person narrative, it plays at metafiction with regular asides to those of us reading the book, references to the fact this is her second book, and gentle explanations of who everyone is, how Turkey works as a society, and how she thinks about her own life. As you will realise from the first reference to the book, this is translated from the Turkish. It may therefore surprise you it should take its time to explain and comment on local culture. In fact the author is using the perspective of an outsider to hold up a mirror to life in Istanbul. Our heroine is of German stock but was born in Turkey and has returned to live there. She’s been there long enough to speak the language well and cope with everyday situations. But she discuses her own problems with idiomatic usages and frets she’s not always creating the right impression. She’s also quick to point out when prejudices impact her life. Sometimes, she’s aggressive in her own defence. Other times, she’s able to exploit local conventions of hospitality to be able to sit and talk with people (pumping them for information).

In fact, she remains a suspect to the end of this book. She certainly has motive and opportunity. The fact she’s able to offer an alternative candidate for the two deaths does not get her off the hook. The lead detective has doubts about the first death but, when the alternative suspect makes a significant confession, he’s not going to go anywhere outside this convenient package. This just leaves our heroine to put the final pieces of the jigsaw into place. As a perfectionist, she always wants the satisfaction of a complete picture. And it proves a very satisfying set of solutions because we’ve been able to watch our heroine ferreting out the relevant information and following through on all the details. Although she’s briefly distracted by one or two possible suspects, none of the early candidates fit into the emerging picture of what happened. It’s only when information emerges about a key relationship that she can finally be certain what probably happened. It’s a wonderfully tragic backstory.

For me this is an almost perfect book. It has a beautifully described first-person narrator who navigates the treacherous currents of Turkish society with considerable skill despite her uncertainties over the subtleties of language and the dangers arising from the tensions between different ethnic and religious groups. That she could still be arrested as the last page of the book turns is a testament to the very clever way the mystery is put together. All it would take is for the police or prosecutors to take a different view of the evidence and she would be toast. In the majority of other detective or mystery fiction outings, there’s never any doubt the primary protagonist will be accepted as completely innocent. This book reflects the realities of life in the world of policing where little is ever black and white. As a final thought, Esmahan Aykol is the mirror image of her heroine. She was born in Turkey but has spent many years in Germany. Such a lifestyle enables her to make telling observations about the culture of both countries. On all levels this is a book worth reading.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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