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Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006

Take a wild ride on the Orient Express


THE OTTOMAN CAGE by Barbara Nadel. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005, 312 pp., $23.95 (cloth).
DRAGON FIRE by William S. Cohen. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2006, 383 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

"One of the most frequently asked questions that I get as a British author," Barbara Nadel tells the e-zine Shots ( www.shotsmag.co.uk ), "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.' "

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.

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.

Title fatigue

With a name like "Dragon Fire," it's got to be a potboiler involving China, right? Fortunately, this thriller by William S. Cohen, who was U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1997 to 2001, turned out to be more original than its cliched title.

The protagonist is the U.S. defense secretary -- not Donald Rumsfeld but Michael Patrick Santini, a former senator who spent several years as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton and who accepted the Cabinet appointment after his predecessor died mysteriously of anthrax.

Threats from Middle Eastern terrorists barely figure in this work. Instead, poor America is in danger of being blindsided by a host of other foreign intrigues, beginning with a militant faction in China that is plotting to hamstring the civilian party leadership so it can pounce on Taiwan.

First, however, it needs to keep the U.S. Navy out of the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese conspirators outsource their skulduggery to someone with money and influence: a billionaire Russian oligarch who hopes to forge an alliance with Germany, and who will sell drugs, high-tech weaponry or assassination services to all comers, if the price is right. To add to the intrigue, Elena, a beautiful and mysterious Israeli assassin, sashays into the picture.

Aside from having a John McCain clone as his main protagonist, Cohen does not succumb to the temptation of caricaturing specific individuals in the Bush administration. But that does not mean he doesn't have a serious message, which seems to be that Americans seem bent on being their own worst enemies. The heroic Santini, unable to dissuade the president from the aggressive strategies pushed by saber-rattling conservatives, is driven out of desperation to disobey his boss's orders and put his country first.

This cliffhanger is convincingly spun as only a Washington insider of Cohen's caliber can do, although its climax, a Dodge City shootout at Tiananmen Square, seems a bit contrived. I was pleased to see Chinese names in the story rendered more or less correctly using hanyu pinyin spellings -- usually a bete noir for American proofreaders -- although a "Hsu" (using the old Wade-Giles romanization) was allowed to slip in. It should have been "Xu." But as I like to say, if the Hsu fits, wear it.



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