‘Hotel Bosphorus’ by Esmahan Aykol

Hotel-Bosphorus

Fiction – paperback; Bitter Lemon Press; 246 pages; 2011. Translated by Ruth Whitehouse.

I like crime novels and translated fiction so I thought this book, a murder mystery written by a Turkish writer, would be just my thing.

Hotel Bosphorus is set, as the title would suggest, in Istanbul. Billed as “the first Kati Hirschel murder mystery” it introduces us to the ballsy heroine who is the star of the series. (There are three written so far, but this is the first to be translated into English.)

Kati is 43 years old and single. Her heritage is German, but she has lived in Turkey “first for seven years, then for 13”, which is short hand for a much longer story: she was born in Istanbul, spent the first seven years of her life there, then moved away with her parents, only to return as a 30-year-old, where she has remained ever since.

What most readers will probably find most appealing about Kati is her profession: she is the proud owner of Istanbul’s only crime book shop. But whether you find it believable that her love of crime fiction means she has the ability to tackle a real life crime investigation is another thing. For me, I found this a leap of faith too far. Indeed, I found it fairly preposterous, but was prepared to give Aykol some leeway. It’s fiction after all.

The crime occurs in a hotel where Kati’s long-lost friend, Petra, is staying. Petra is a German movie star in town to begin work on a new film. The victim is the little-known German director of the film. There is deep suspicion that Petra murdered him because they were rumoured to have been romantically linked, but Petra denies any involvement — both in the murder and the romance.

While Kati’s not exactly sure whether Petra is telling the truth, she’s determined to get to the bottom of what happened. Along the way she strikes up a friendship with the local police inspector, who turns out to be the least professional policeman I’ve ever come across in fiction — he not only shares details of the investigation with Kati, he tries to have sex with her on two separate occasions! She also meets journalists and various members of the movie’s production crew, and she even has a run-in with a gangland boss. But it is a chance encounter with a suave Turkish lawyer that helps her solve the case. Yes, all rather ridiculous, I have to say.

However, I did enjoy the humour in this novel. Kati is an expert at delivering some terrific one-liners:

Also, from experience, I’ve learned that you can’t take revenge on someone who doesn’t care about you, whereas it’s easy to take revenge on someone who loves you — all you have to do is commit suicide.

And her wry observations about the differences between Germans and Turks are also very good. While those cultural differences might not exactly dispel racial stereotypes, Kati is allowed to make them because:

In my experience only those who have lived abroad have what it takes to criticize their own people, especially in the case of Germans.

Of course, she also tends to criticize Turkish people — for instance, the taxi drivers who don’t know where they are going — but leaps to their defence whenever she hears others put them down.

The only place in the world where I feel at home is Istanbul. Maybe that’s because Istanbul  is the only place that has no objection to me being myself… After a while, people don’t distinguish between which experiences they have selected for themselves and which have been dished out to them. I have a bona fide Turkish passport, yet in Turkey I’m a German. A German who speaks good Turkish. And when I’m in Germany, despite having a German passport and the fact that my mother’s a Roman Catholic, I’m a Jew.

But there were many things about this book which annoyed me, in particular Aykol’s emphasis on telling instead of showing. For instance:

To pass the time, I looked at the shop-window displays in the lobby. What strange things they were selling.

What were these “things”? Apples and handbags? Goatskin shoes and tacky snow globes? The author never bothers to tell us. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but Hotel Bosphorus is filled with sentences like this, and while I understand it’s a crime novel and not literary fiction this lack of attention to detail at the expense of moving the narrative forward feels shoddy. Indeed, most of the prose feels flat and limp.

The book certainly has its strengths, but on the whole I felt the story was clumsily written and the crime aspect was far too simplified for my tastes. It reminded me very much of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 LadiesDetective Agency, which, frankly, I hated. It’s fair to say I probably won’t be bothering with the rest of the Kati Herschel series when they eventually get translated, but that’s not to say you won’t enjoy them if you like whimsical murder mysteries set in foreign cities.

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8 thoughts on “‘Hotel Bosphorus’ by Esmahan Aykol

  1. I was planning to read this one as I try to read all the translated crime fiction published in the UK each year (so long as not slash-horror/serial killer style, or historical – all those medieval conspiracies, no thanks). However, a combination of too many reviews like yours and distribution problems so Amazon could not send it to me, have made me decide against. Your adjective “whimsical” is a killer so far as I am concerned.

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  2. This sounds a bit formulaic in its style maybe like the mcall smiths that are easy to read but very similar style wise ,the german /turkish angle is a interesting one having lived in germany and knowing the size of the turkish community in germany can imagine a story using someone returning to turkey from there would be an interesting story if done well ,all the best stu

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  3. Hmmm… I’m somewhat interested in this because of the setting, but I also didn’t think much of Number One Ladies Detective Agency–and am now glad to know I’m not alone in that! I’ll give this one a little more thought and, at the very least, go in with lower expectations if I do decide to read it.

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  4. I read this one as well. The mystery side of the story is indeed somewhat simplistic and depends far too much on coincidence, but what I liked was a picture into the culture–or two cultures really. I was a little hesitant to be too damning of the prose style since it is translated and it’s hard to know whether the original is like that or if in the retelling in English it was simply sloppily done.

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  5. I bought this one on the spur of the moment to read while on holiday in the UAE, because it sounded interesting. And while there were some good elements to it, which I eluded to in my review, as a whole it just wasn’t for me. I like my crime books to be fairly meaty and to have some semblance of reality to them… this was just far too simplistic for my liking.

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  6. The German/Turkish angle was a good one… I hadn’t previously been aware of the relationship between the two nationalities, so I found it quite fascinating. I suspect if you were German or Turkish it would particularly resonate.

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  7. Lower expectations is a good idea! If you’re after something light and easy-to-read then you may well like it. But for me it just didn’t wash.

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