7 Great Books Set in Turkey That We Love

7 Great Books Set in Turkey That We Love

Thursday, 18 August, 2022

Turkey is such a dreamy holiday destination. You can float in a hot air balloon over Cappadocia, ride a boat across the Bosphorus Strait at sunset, eat a lavish Turkish breakfast in Istanbul, or splash in the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean Seas.

The minarets are pointy, the desserts are sweet, the people are friendly, and the history is vast, sprawling, and contentious. All of which make for excellent storytelling.

Here are seven books set in Turkey that took us there on the page: an Ottoman-era murder mystery starring a food-loving detective, a historical novel that weaves art and multiple narrators, an auto-bio graphic novel set in 1980s Istanbul, a classic novel of romantic suspense, a thriller/coming-of-age story set in modern Istanbul, and more.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Turkey: It’s Turkish Delight on a Moonlit Night.


Black Amber - Phyllis A. Whitney

Black Amber
> Phyllis A. Whitney

What do you do when your sister drowns under mysterious circumstances in the Bosphorous Strait? The only reasonable thing: Go undercover to Istanbul to investigate, then get caught up in intrigue and romance along the way to the truth.

Our mid-20th-century heroine is Tracy Hubbard. She works at a prestigious publisher in New York City, and she has moxie. She’s also on a mission: Travel to a beautiful villa in Istanbul to assist famous artist Miles Radburn with his book on Turkish tiles and mosaics.

To her big-city boss and her Turkish hosts, Tracey is the very definition of a promising young woman. And she is. But she will not be dissuaded from her personal agenda to uncover what really happened to her sister Anabel.

This story has all you could ask for in suspenseful escapism. Most of the action takes place in a Turkish mansion on the edge of the Bosphorous — with verandas and breezeways that allow for eavesdropping on conversations and shutters rattled by wind in a very unsettling (satisfying) way.

While Tracy settles into her new environment and explores the beauty (and danger) of Istanbul, we’re at her side to take in the sights and sounds of Istanbul — with a hint of the Gothic to enhance the experience, like a sugar cube melting into a cup of dark Turkish coffee. {more}

She slipped a coat over her nightgown, turned off the lights in the room, and parted the heavy draperies to step out upon the veranda. The landing area stood empty and quiet, water lapping gently against the steps. The rain had stopped, and in the stillness she could hear distant voices from a village on the nearby shore. A well-lighted ship went past, its engines throbbing as it made its way north from Istanbul toward the Black Sea and the ports of Russia. Overhead ragged clouds raced, a touch of faint moonlight breaking through patches of torn gray. The water drew her eyes — black and seemingly still on the surface, yet with those deep and treacherous currents stirring beneath. Somewhere in the village a man began to sing, and she heard for the first time the minor-keyed lament of Turkish music, repetitive and strange to Western ears, yet somehow haunting. Again a sense of isolation swept over her. She was out of touch with all she knew and was sure of, abroad upon currents that might take her almost anywhere. — Phyllis A. Whitney


Dare to Disappoint - Özge Samancı

Dare to Disappoint
> Özge Samancı

This is the story of Özge Samancı and her childhood in Izmir, Turkey, during the 1980s and ’90s. Energetic and curious, she was eager to learn, had a passion for Jaques Cousteau, played the mandolin — and, as many of us do, struggled with who to be in the face of who everyone around her wanted her to be.

Because aside from the usual pressures of growing up, Özge came of age in a politically polarized, militaristic, conservative, economically unstable country.

In one telling scene, her class is learning about Atatürk, the leader who revolutionized Turkey in the 1920s. The kids are required to recite an oath every day that praises Atatürk in which they vow ‘to love my country more than I love myself.’ The author does a bang-up job managing the tone, so there’s ongoing tension, but there’s also hope.

As we follow Özge to high school and college, we experience the Turkish culture — its rewards and limitations — as Özge does. The neat trick of this graphic novel is that you think you’re reading an autobio comic, but what’s really happening is a conversation between cultures. When Özge says she had to take a daily pledge, you remember your own school days rituals. And when she admits her family watched the TV show Dallas at night, you might recall that yours did, too. {more}

illustration from the graphic novel dare to disappoint


Journey into Fear - Eric Ambler

Journey Into Fear
> Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler was a popular British spy novelist in the early years of WWII, and his thrillers made heroes of the everyman. In most of his books, a regular joe accidentally lands himself in hot water, surrounded by spies, revolutionaries, and criminals who just might kill him.

Journey into Fear begins in Istanbul, where we meet Graham, a somewhat nerdy armaments engineer who’s frantically trying to disentangle himself from a late-night flirtation with a cabaret dancer. He’s a good husband, thinking of his wife, and all he wants is to get back home to England.

He boards an Italian freighter to begin the probably tedious, maybe dangerous journey home. That’s when circumstances spin dangerously out of his control.

Graham is carrying plans for a Turkish defense system, and the Nazis want those plans.

As he tries to lie low, he’s drawn into encounters with the other passengers on board: the femme fatale from the nightclub and her husband (!), Nazi assassins, and several people — harmless or not? — who may not be entirely honest about their identities.

The plot has a pleasing patina of menace, and the dinner scenes in the mess hall each evening are as humorous as they are charged with peril. {more}

But you couldn’t get away from danger! It was all about you, all the time. You could live in ignorance of it for years: you might go to the end of your days believing that some things couldn’t possibly happen to you, that death could only come to you with the sweet reason of disease or an ‘act of God’: but it was there just the same, waiting to make nonsense of all your comfortable ideas about your relations with time and chance, ready to remind you — in case you had forgotten — that civilisation was a word and that you still lived in the jungle. — Eric Ambler


My Name is Red - Orhan Pamuk

My Name Is Red
> Orhan Pamuk

It is only kind of accurate to describe this stunning novel as a ‘murder mystery set in Istanbul in the 1590s,’ but that’s the easiest way to jump into this lovely literary fray.

There is a dead man. And he’s been murdered. In fact, he introduces himself in a spectacular piece of writing that opens the book.

There’s also a hero; his name is Black. He’s returned to Istanbul from travels abroad, just in time to figure out who killed one of his mentors.

There are complications, rich relationships, clues, and many motives. The mystery is a bit noir-ish — Black might be the last good man in a tough town.

But, like other rich, read-it-multiple-times literature, the murder mystery is here mainly to talk about other things, like art and religion, love and violence.

Though the book has a solid narrative structure — there is a traditional arc — it plays fast and loose with our notions of character. Each chapter of the story is told by a different narrator, and not all of them are human. So we hear from an illustration of a dog, and Death takes a turn. We hear from Black and, as the title suggests, the dead Red.

The reason for all these characters and their perspectives? The Sultan has secretly commissioned a great book to be created in his honor, to celebrate his life and empire. It will be illustrated by the finest artists in the new, modern style. That last bit, the embrace of the new, raises all manner of questions about the meaning of art and artists.

This story weaves fantasy, philosophical musing, and a compelling mystery to transport you to the 16th-century Ottoman Empire. {more}

Behold! I am a twenty-two-carat Ottoman Sultani gold coin and I bear the glorious insignia of His Excellency Our Sultan, Refuge of the World. Here, in the middle of the night in this fine coffeehouse overcome with funereal melancholy, Stork, one of Our Sultan’s great masters, has just finished drawing my picture, though he hasn’t yet been able to embellish me with gold wash — I’ll leave that to your imagination. My image is here before you, yet I myself can be found in the money purse of your dear brother, Stork, that illustrious miniaturist. He’s rising now, removing me from his purse and showing me off to each of you. Hello, hello, greetings to all the master artists and assorted guests. Your eyes widen as you behold my glimmer, you thrill as I shimmer in the light of the oil lamp, and finally, you bristle with envy at my owner, Master Stork. You’re justified in behaving so, for there’s no better measure of an illustrator’s talent than I. — Orhan Pamuk


The Janissary Tree - Jason Goodwin

The Janissary Tree
> Jason Goodwin

This delightful historical murder mystery set in Ottoman-era Istanbul has everything! Janissaries, Russian soldiers, sessions at the hammam. A transexual dancer, intrigue in the harem, and a handful of very creative murders.

And Yashim, our charismatic, erudite, genteel detective who is, by the by, a eunuch.

Although most eunuchs of the era were slaves, either assigned to the harem (Black eunuchs from Africa) or banned from interacting with the concubines (White eunuchs from the Balkans and Caucasus), Yashim may go anywhere he pleases. He’s a trusted envoy of the Sultan with a gift for blending into the scenery when it serves him.

He’s also fast-thinking, light on his feet, and has a gift for language. He also loves to cook. And eat. And share both with his dear friend Palewski, the Polish Ambassador. So they open a bottle, get a little drunk, and commiserate about the state of the world over feta-stuffed pastries and chicken with walnuts.

In this, the first adventure in a five-book series, Yashim is set on the case of four soldiers gone missing on the brink of an important military exercise to celebrate the new, modern army. As he searches the city for the men, he finds them: one by one and very dead. During his investigation, he’s also drawn into the murder of the Sultan’s new concubine and the theft of jewels at Topkapi Palace. {more}

[I]n the morning, coming down to the Kara Davut, he always decided to stay where he was. He’d leave his books to glower in the half-light, and his kitchen would fill the room with the scent of cardamom and mint and throw steam onto the windows. He’d labor up and down flights of steep stairs and crack his head, from time to time, on the lintel of the sunken doorway. Because the Kara Davut was his kind of street. Ever since he’d found this cafe, where the proprietor always remembered how he liked his coffee — straight, no spice, a hint of sugar — he’d been happy in the Kara Davut. The people all knew him, but they weren’t prying or gossipy. Not that he gave them anything to gossip about: Yashim led a quiet, blameless life. He went to mosque with them on Fridays. He paid his bills. In return he asked for nothing more than to be left in peace over his morning coffees, to watch the street show, to be waved over by the fishmonger with news of an important haul or to visit the Libyan baker for his excellent sprouted-grain bread. — Jason Goodwin


Three Daughters of Eve - Elif Shafak

Three Daughters of Eve
> Elif Shafak

Author Elif Shafak is a literary force: an award-winning author whose books are as readable as they are sharp and insightful. Her works have been translated into 55 languages, she was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Politico named her one of the twelve people ‘who will give you a much needed lift of the heart.’

She brings all of that, plus deep compassion, to this novel. It’s a mashup of domestic noir and coming-of-age story set in Istanbul in the 1980s and 2016 and at Oxford University in the early aughts.

When the story opens, it’s Istanbul, 2016, and our heroine Peri — 35 years old, upper-middle class — is stuck in nightmarish traffic with her daughter, on the way to an uppercrust dinner party she does not want to attend. What happens next is a shocking thrill ride that ends with a chase scene and a physical struggle.

During the altercation, Peri’s purse is upended, and a Polaroid photo flutters to the ground. That photo unleashes a flood of memories and emotions in her. The rest of the story alternates between the truly awful dinner party of the present and flashbacks through Peri’s past to show the events that led to that photo and this evening.

This page-turning novel tackles the significant issues of sexual harassment, extremism, and the tension between the devout and the secular — while it explores more intimate challenges of identity, forgiveness, and loyalty. {more}

It was an ordinary spring day in Istanbul, a long and leaden afternoon like so many others, when she discovered, with a hollowness in her stomach, that she was capable of killing someone. She had always suspected that even the calmest and sweetest women under stress were prone to outbursts of violence. Since she thought of herself as neither calm nor sweet she had reckoned that her potential to lose control was considerably great than theirs. — Elif Shafak


The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian
> Elizabeth Kostova

‘Vampire librarian.’ If those two words have sold you on this book, feel free to stop reading this and get your hands on a copy of the book immediately. If you want more, try this: It’s a spine-tingling page-turner and a celebration of the unbreakable bonds we form with people in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Or this: Most of the action takes place in historical libraries, dusty archives, and mountaintop monasteries — or around tables loaded with endless cups of tea, pastries, and Balkan food.

The story begins in 1970s Amsterdam: Late one night, while exploring her father’s library, a teenage girl finds a collection of old letters and a mysterious book. She reads the letters and is suddenly more frightened than she’s ever been. When her father disappears, she sets out on a quest to find him and to resolve letters’ secrets.

Equal parts Gothic thriller, detective story, travelogue, historical fiction, and a love letter to libraries, this epic effortlessly keeps track of a large cast of unforgettable characters as they fight for light in the face of an unspeakable evil. {more}

I don’t know what I had expected of Istanbul — nothing, maybe, since I had had so little time to anticipate the journey — but the beauty of this city knocked the wind out of me. It had an Arabian Nights quality that no number of honking cars or businessmen in Western suits could dissolve… By the time we found some rooms in the old quarter of Sultanahmet, I had received a dizzying glimpse of dozens of mosques and minarets, bazaars hung with fine textiles, even a flash of the many-domed, four-horned Hagia Sophia billowing above the peninsula. — Elizabeth Kostova

Top image courtesy of Lepneva Irina/Shutterstock.

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