French archeologist Max Lefevre has just arrived in 1830's Constantinople, reputedly to barter for some lost Byzantine relics in the hope that they will be his key to wealth and glory. Meanwhile, local eunuch Yashim is welcome in a variety of social circles, dining out in the cosmopolitan cafes and even shopping in many of the markets of the Grand Bazaar with their cornucopia of perfect fruits and vegetables.
Possessed of a fierce intellect and a genuine gift for listening and quiet questioning, Yashim has learned to separate himself from his emotions as he readily moves between the refined world of Topkapi Palace and the poorer streets of Constantinople, always on the lookout for sinister doings in this thriving city where Jews, Greeks, Muslims and Christians live peacefully together.
Times, however, are changing. The Sultan Mahmut II, who for thirty years has presided over many of the changes to the Ottoman state, now lies in his palace dying of tuberculosis and cirrhosis of the liver, his illness causing an uneasiness to circulate throughout the Empire. Against this backdrop of collective restlessness, a series of violent murders are being committed, murders in which the forty-something Yashim is called upon to investigate.
The first victim is Yashim's friend George, a friendly merchant trader found beaten and left for dead in the street. Then the body of elderly Goulandris is discovered in his shop. A native Greek, Goulandris dealt in old books and curiosities, and Yashim visited him often. In this place of belonging where "even the dead belonged somewhere," perhaps both George and Goulandris were simply victims of the same unease that seems to be sweeping though the city.
The wife of French merchant Monsieur Mavrogordato invites Yashim to her house to tell him that Max Lefevre recently visited, asking her husband for a small loan. In the course of the discussion, the man made certain offers that were disquieting; there was a proposal made to sell her husband something, and Madame Mavrogordato would like Yashim to encourage Monsieur Lefevre to conduct his research elsewhere.
Determined to get to the bottom of Lefevre's motivations and discover whether he is connected to the murders, Stanislaw Palewski, the Polish ambassador and Yashim's best friend, invites Lefevre to dinner. However, their evening together sheds little light on Lefevre's Machiavellian schemes, if indeed he has any. One thing is for
certain: throughout the course of the meal, Yashim decides that he doesn't particularly like this strange, enigmatic Frenchman who isn't being particularly honest with either him or Palewski.
Then one night, Lefevre appears at Yashim's door, stumbling across the threshold, dragging a leather satchel into the room behind him, appearing shrunken and incredibly aged, his black eyes darting nervously from side to side, begging for help and fearing for his life: "Some people get the wrong idea, they think of me as a grave robber, but I bring lost treasures to light, I bring them back to life."
Taking pity on him, Yashim helps Lefevre escape on a boat bound for France,
but when his body is later discovered back in Istanbul, savagely mauled, the
accompanying report from the French ambassador changes everything. Lefevre's death takes on a terrible public urgency, the report containing graphic details of a bizarre act of savagery, even as Yashim swears he caught a glimpse of the Frenchman again the next day, outside the local fish market.
Author Jason Goodwin's complicated plot races along, and Yashim realizes that his involvement with the archaeologist has at best been foolish, the slur marking him like a stain on his character, a faint question now hanging over his good judgment.
Thrown into a boiling pot of fervor, faith and political trickery, the eunuch
faces his biggest crisis yet in a city where people cast off their skins like snakes as they move from one incarnation to another.
As with Goodman's previous book, The Janissary Tree, the mystery aspects of the plot are compelling.
One of the author's significant strengths is his ability to bring his colorful world of 19th-century Constantinople to life, this city of patriarchs and sultans a bustling kaleidoscope of the gorgeous East, the pride of fifteen centuries "and a city in which everyone, from sultan to beggar, belongs somewhere."
At times, The Snake Stone feels bottom-heavy, the historical backstory causing the narrative to occasionally stall. But the character of Yashim is always mysterious and intriguing as he floats effortlessly between two worlds, using his wits to unravel the mystery of these gruesome murders which end up hinging on a tatty paperbound copy of book by Balzac; the confessions of Lefevre's beautiful wife, Madame Amelie; and the strange doings of secret society called Hetira, who are curiously devoted to the restoration of the Greek Empire.