“ Print Length: 215 pages „
Paul Hannah, an American archeologist specialising in the Neolithic Period, works on a dig in central Anatolia, Turkey. One day he comes across a red dot on a shard he can't explain. The only person who can is Dr. Lacy Glass, an American professor and the world's best expert on colour. By chance she's in Istanbul to do research work. They've known each other since they worked together on a dig in Egypt two years ago. She agrees to come. The two have never been an item, Lacy wouldn't object to becoming one, though. Who knows, maybe this time...
After getting on the train in Istanbul she notices how a passenger, a fellow American, is told to leave the train because he has no ticket and no money to buy one. She senses his despair and on impulse pays for his ticket. Not long into the journey she sees his body flying past her window. It's obvious that he didn't jump but that his dead body was thrown out. She pulls the emergency brake and the body is found on the railway embankment. She hands his coat which she finds lying on a seat to an American policeman who's also on the train going east for a training programme of Turkish police rookies. It's a trench coat with the name tag Max Sebring stitched onto it. An expensive piece not appropriate for the bum she helped out.
She's met at the station by a young woman, Sierra. Lacy realises at once that she's a rival for Paul's affection. At the dig she learns that the financial backer who's come over from the States to see what's done with his money has died the previous night. His name is Max Sebring. What? How come that the bum from the Istanbul train had Max Sebring's coat, how come that both Americans, whatever their connection, died a premature death in Turkey?
We're now in the middle of a rather twisted tale with a lot of assumptions, dead ends, false accusations, misplaced trust and mistrust. As if there weren't enough inexplicable events already, Sierra is severely attacked one night. Lacy could stay out of whatever is going on, after all the sole reason why she's at the dig is to analyse a dot of colour, but she can't. If she hadn't paid for the man's ticket, he wouldn't have been thrown off the train. She can't help but feel responsible for him and makes up her mind to get to the bottom of the mystery. She returns to Istanbul, gets to know a British ex-pat ready to help this damsel and naively plunges into an adventure that nearly costs her life.
I chanced on the book when I was looking for reading matter for hols in Turkey. The fact that it's set on a dig attracted me, too. My interest in archeology (in its written form) has been kindled by Aaron Elkins' series featuring Gideon Oliver, professor of paleoanthropology (see my review). Why not be entertained and informed at the same time?
We learn about the obsession of the director of the dig that the area they're working in is precisely on the route the Persians took when they were retreating from fights with the Romans and that unimaginable treasures are only waiting to be found. Sadly, however, nothing comes to light to back his theory. What does come to light is a golden earring from Assyrian times which shouldn't be there. There's no reason for its lying in a hole in the ground in this part of the world - unless it's part of the loot of the museum of Baghdad after Sadam Hussein's fall and smugglers lost it. As you can see digging holes into the barren soil of a God forsaken place in Anatolia doesn't have to be a boring enterprise. I've got a simple mind and can't follow too many twists in a story. Here I could retell the plot after closing the book which means that it's just right.
Given that the personnel on the dig is American with the exclusion of one Turkish couple (she an archeologist, he the cook) it isn't surprising that Turkey doesn't feature too much. It's not a story about Turkey wrapped in an American mystery, but an American murder mystery with a Turkish background. The last time I reviewed a novel set in Turkey written by an American author a member commented, "This sounds quite interesting, although I would like to read something set in Turkey by an author from that country. " I've thoroughly thought this through and come to the conclusion that this sounds profound and wise but isn't.
I've grown up in the Western story telling tradition. I've read tons of books in my life and know that it suits me. The Eastern, Scheherazade style doesn't. I can't stand the constant meandering, I don't want to hear about each minor character's pedigree down to Adam and Eve (Salman Rushdie!). I get pimples and a rash when supernatural encounters are described in loving detail. I'm no shepherdess sitting at a campfire happy to listen to never ending Oriental lore. Some time ago I became interested in Uzbekistan and spent hours on the net searching for an Uzbek novel translated either into German or English. In the end I found an English one. It was expensive but I bought it. I was really sad but I couldn't read it, after some chapters I gave up. The good thing with foreign authors is that they notice things locals don't. Why should they mention something everybody knows anyway? This capacity makes the American writer Donna Leon's thrillers set in Venice so appealing even if many of her plots are weak.
To come to a conclusion: The Man on the Istanbul Train may not be my book of the year but I enjoyed reading it and I can recommend it to readers who know Istanbul and/or Turkey or are planning going there one day or to readers who like reading murder mysteries.