Raymond Chandler, who knew a thing or two about the fictional detective, famously wrote that he must be “the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” Consciously or not, Jason Goodwin has thoroughly absorbed that precept; his own fictional detective, Yashim, might have considered Philip Marlowe a bit uncouth (all that smoking and drinking surely show a lack of self-control), but they are cut from the same cloth when it comes to righting the wrongs of the world.
In “An Evil Eye,” Goodwin’s fourth novel, Yashim’s world is the decaying Ottoman Empire of the early 19th century. The year is 1839, and a new sultan, Abdulmecid, has replaced the old one in Istanbul. In the novel’s most atmospheric, least realized subplot, this change in monarchs occasions a corresponding change in the monarch’s harem. In an echo of Goodwin’s first book, “The Janissary Tree” (2006), the sultan’s harem also contains a mystery that will eventually involve our detective. But in “An Evil Eye,” the more immediate puzzle is posed by a dead body found on the island of Chalki in the well of the monastery. The dead man in the well is marked with a totenkopf — or skull symbol — and when Yashim is dispatched to investigate, it doesn’t take him long to surmise that the dead man might have been Russian.