Sunday, March 3, 2013

Esmahan Aykol’s Baksheesh

Esmahan Aykol’s Baksheesh, which I read in Ruth Whitehouse’s translation of the Turkish novel known as Kelepir Ev (“bargain home” according to Google Translate), is the second in Aykol’s Kati Hirschel “Istanbul mystery” series; it follows Hotel Bosphorus, which Whitehouse also translated. I guess I’d call Baksheesh a moderately cozy detective novel that draws on multiple genres: Kati Hirschel, a German woman who speaks Turkish almost like a native, owns a mystery book store and, you guessed it, solves a murder herself.

It’s Kati’s search for what I think is the bargain home in the original Turkish title that leads her to pay the baksheesh in the English title… and to find her way to trouble. Kati meets the dead man when he is still very much alive, and she’s even considered a suspect in his death because she threw a ceramic ashtray (apparently a supremely heavy ceramic ashtray) at him, making his head bleed. The other Big Problem in Kati’s life at the time of Baksheesh is that she and her lawyer boyfriend aren’t getting along.

Alas, my biggest impression of Baksheesh is that Aykol wrote it for a very specific target audience: cosmopolitan woman (or perhaps aging Cosmo girls?) experiencing midlife angst due to relationship “issues,” the onset of wrinkles, and, yes, even impending menopause. Though Kati certainly needs to take herself out of contention for a murder charge, it felt that her conversations with a police investigator were as important for her to win compliments and propositions as for her to pump him for information about the case.

Aykol also includes, often rather awkwardly, a fair bit of cultural information in Baksheesh. Her details on how people dress, though, feel more like magazine writing than fiction: “Nowadays, all middle-class Turkish women wear shorts, miniskirts and tops with cleavage bursting out, even from high necklines.” There’s also a mention of the male habit of kissing female hands, plus details on clothes for mourning. The cultural background that comes through characters’ life situations—a family business that includes parking facilities or a pop singer’s quick career—tends to feel far more organic to the story than Kati’s commentaries.

Though I’m sure Baksheesh will find readers content with a light book about a plucky German woman living in Turkey, I wish Aykol had dug deeper when she created Kati’s character. I would have been more interested if she’d found something darker and more intriguing than superficial treatment of topics like aging, smoking, or a petty-sounding tiff with the boyfriend. Or, alas again, even the mechanical-feeling sleuthing.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of Baksheesh from Meryl Zegarek PR; the book was published by Bitter Lemon Press. Thank you to both!

Up Next: Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, then Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza.

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