The Ottoman Cage

Inspector Ikmen and the chemical prison

By Mark Schreiber

A version of this review appeared as
"Take a wild ride on the Orient Express" in
The Japan Times, The Asian Bookshelf, 17 September 2006


Barbara Nadel
The Ottoman Cage
New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005
312 pages, hardcover

"One of the most frequently asked questions that I get as a British author," Barbara Nadel tells the e-zine Shots (, "is 'why do you set your crime series in Istanbul?' I generally finish my now familiar diatribe with . . . 'Istanbul has a lot of places in which to hide bodies.'"

Inspector Cetin Ikmen

Since her release of "Belshazzar's Daughter" in 1999, Nadel has continued to prove her point in an ongoing series of police procedural novels set in Istanbul featuring inspector Cetin Ikmen. The work under review is for the U.S. edition, initially released in Britain under the title "A Chemical Prison."

Ikmen, Nadel's series character, is a tough Turkish cop, a chain smoker and plodding investigator out of the Simenon-Maigret mold, so old-fashioned he still hasn't figured out how to use his cell phone. From his personal life we see he's also something of a male chauvinist. Problems at home, including a senile father who needs to be institutionalized, are taking a toll on his subservient wife.

In "The Ottoman Cage," police find themselves confounded by the crime scene. Located in a house next to Topkapi palace, it bears a striking resemblance to what is known as a Kafes apartment, where the old Ottomans used to keep rivals confined in a sort of urban exile.

The victim, a young man, had been strangled, and the atrophied condition of his body suggests he has been prisoner in the room for a considerable duration, kept in a sedated state by injections of a synthetic opiate that only doctors can easily obtain, and thereby casting suspicion on the city's close-knit community of well-to-do Armenian physicians.

Turkish anthropology

Part of book's appeal is in how well Nadel presents Turkey's social classes and ethnic diversity, with a Jewish police detective, Armenian physicians and people smuggled into the country from parts of the former Soviet Union. A side plot involves an on-the-job relationship: Sgt. Farsakoglu, an attractive, single policewoman, has the hots for Suleyman, her unhappily married male colleague.

The London-born Nadel, who is intimately familiar with Turkey, also has a background in counseling sexually abused teenagers and teaching psychology, which doubtless has influenced her various insights into the sexual mores of a predominantly Muslim country that are touched upon in this book.

Those interested in reading other mysteries set in Turkey might enjoy contrasting Nadel's series with the translated works of Turkish mystery author Orhan Pamuk, whose novel "My Name Is Red," set in 16th-century Istanbul, was reviewed here last March.