Katherine Locke talks to Jason Goodwin whose series of detective novels have led to a cookbook from an unusual sleuth.
There are numerous ways to conduct a courtship, but few could be more romantic than taking six months to walk from Gdansk to Istanbul. This is exactly what Jason Goodwin and his wife Kate did after leaving university. ‘We wanted to really experience the people and the culture’, says Jason, ‘we weren’t interested in driving through a landscape, we wanted to be fully involved in the journey’. In the entire six months, there were only two nights they didn’t find a place to stay. ‘We were literally knocking on doors along the way’ he recalls ‘the generosity of people, who ostensibly have very little, is astounding’.
Slightly less romantic, is the fact that they didn’t wash their hair for the entire trek. ‘We had read that if you don’t wash your hair, eventually it would become so thick and glossy that you could run a piece of silk over it. This, apparently, is the reason that gypsies have amazing hair. Sadly, it didn’t quite work out that way for us’.
Freshly washed and back in the UK, Jason wrote about the journey in his book On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul, which won the John Llewllyn Rhys Prize in 1993. Already established as a noteworthy travel writer (he had won the Sunday Telegraph Spectator Young Writer of the Year in 1987) with a prize of a ticket to Beijing. ‘I had spent some time rummaging in the attics of both sets of grandparents, and realised that they had separately been involved in the tea trade’. Jason was interested in the story of tea production, but it was also a family pilgrimage. The result was his first book A Time For Tea: Travels In China and India in Search of Tea.
However, Jason is best known for his series of novels featuring Yashmin, the eunuch detective and set in nineteenth century Turkey. There are currently five in the series, starting with The Janissary Tree, which won the coveted Edgar Allen Poe Award in 2007. The Edgar, as it is affectionately known, is the most prestigious award in the mystery genre and has been awarded to such illustrious names as PD James, Eudora Welty and Elmore Leonard.
The novels are an evocative account of life at the time and are meticulously researched. Jason has brought to life a world so very different to anything we might recognise today. ‘Istanbul was a cacophony of cultures’, says Jason, ‘ as it was a city lying strategically between the Silk Road and Europe. There were Muslims, Christians, Sephardi Jews and Greek Orthodox citizens living side by side. It was the original cosmopolitan city’.
Jason has very interesting reasons for making his hero a eunuch. ‘It gave me a lot more literary freedom’, he says. ‘As a eunuch Yashmin is able to talk to women and has access to female spaces. It meant he is able to go into harems, as he is a trusted person in society. Eunuchs were originally created to be devoted servants’, Jason explains. ‘It also gives him a secret sorrow, which all the best literary detectives experience’.
He refers to all the great detectives in literature as being somewhat sexless and cites Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes and Phillip Marlowe as examples. ‘There is also a chivalric element to the detective hero’, he says, ‘the notion of being of service to society and not being bound to one person (like a partner or child)’.
After five novels, Jason says he is ready to take a break from the series, but Yashmin’s spirit is still very much evident in his new project Yashmin’s Istanbul Cookbook. ‘Yashmin cooks throughout the books’, says Jason. ‘It started as a literary device, to take a break from the action and give Yashmin a chance to ruminate on the case in hand, but it also was a way to evoke place with flavours and smells. Writing about cumin, for example, will trigger a response in the reader which can act as a very effective shorthand’.
Jason himself is a keen cook ‘We have four children’, he says ‘life has been all about cooking, so you might as well enjoy it’. He has also inherited an ability to write about food from his mother, Jocasta Innes. Although she eventually became well known for interiors (Paint Magic), she wrote The Paupers Cookbook in the 1970s. ‘She had a young, unknown chef to test the recipes’, he says, ‘it was Nigel Slater’. The book, although born out of necessity, became hugely popular and is still in print today.
He also has a film idea occupying his mind. ‘Having grown up with a film producer father, I have always been fairly wary of the film industry’, he says. ‘It depends on so many people and there are so many variables. The best story in the world can end up being the worst film. One of the reasons I chose to be a writer, was the fact that you work alone’. However, this project is to be a father and son collaboration. His father Richard Goodwin (A Passage to India, Death on the Nile etc), is keen to produce and Jason is about to write the treatment. ‘It is an adaptation of Jeremy James’ book The Byerley Turk: The True Story of the First Thoroughbred’. The story sweeps from Ottoman Turkey, through Europe and ends up in seventeenth century London. It is the story of the horse that was the founding sire of the modern day thoroughbred and the story is rich and multi layered.
Jason has an exciting future ahead and is looking forward to working on his new projects. ‘I have just turned fifty’, he says, ‘it feels like the natural time for a slightly new direction’. He is renovating a house and enjoying getting his hands dirty. ‘Writing is a very slow process’, he says, ‘the children used to call it typing when they were little, as there is very little to actually see at the end of a days work, so I am really enjoying the tangible nature of working on the house. There is a satisfying sense of achievement’.
Although Jason has no intention of stopping typing any time soon, with all his other ideas and projects, Yashmin fans just might have a long wait for the next instalment.