@@@ (3 out of 5)
It’s 1840. A eunuch in service to the Ottoman sultan is, improbably, an accomplished detective, a gifted hand-to-hand fighter, and even a lover of women (or, at least, one woman) in this fanciful but flawed mystery story. Dr. Watson to Yashim’s Sherlock Holmes is a Polish Count ejected from his lands by the Austrians in a recent partition of Poland, which is now, effectively, nonexistent. But Count Paderewski, appointed Ambassador to the Ottoman Court, continues in office to keep the flag of Poland flying in the hearts and minds of his contemporaries.
As the action shifts from Istanbul to Venice, we meet a passel of equally unlikely Venetian characters. Included are a surpassingly beautiful Countess who is also a brilliant fencer; a masterful local police inspector; a chubby but beautiful young prostitute with, naturally, a . . . let’s just say “big heart”; a deaf mute idiot savant with the ability to paint like Michelangelo; and a three-century-old portrait by a brilliant artist of the Venetian Renaissance.
Somehow, all these characters come together in the course of The Bellini Card once Yashim (the eunuch) is ordered by the young sultan Abdulmecid to travel to Venice to secure the portrait. This book is the third in a series of mystery stories that focus on Yashim and life in the Ottoman Empire. Though the action is sometimes difficult to follow (much less to understand), the book is nonetheless a worthwhile read, if only because of Jason Goodwin’s obvious respect for historical accuracy and his evocative portraits of two of the world’s most fascinating cities in the 19th Century.
Although I can’t count The Bellini Card as giving me one of my most rewarding recent reading experiences, chances are good I’ll read the two novels that preceded it, anyway. I’m a sucker for historical fiction generally, and more so for mysteries set in exotic locales. If you like your crime stories to take you off the beaten path, you, too, will probably want to pick up The Bellini Card.