THE THURSDAY BOOK: Tales of murder and mystery in Turkey

Turkish Gambit Boris Akunin, trans Andrew Bromfield Weidenfeld & Nicholson, pounds 12/pounds 11 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897; Deadly Web Barbara Nadel Headline, pounds 18.99/ pounds 17.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
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Indy Lifestyle Online
TURKEY IS in the news, with discussion of its possible entry to the EU and the exhibition of Turkish arts at the Royal Academy. These two novels aim at putting fictional flesh on our rather minimalist picture of the country.

Boris Akunin is the pseudonym of a Muscovite, Grigory Chkhartishvili. The latest of his successful tsarist detective stories ventures into the territory of the Ottoman Empire. For most Brits, Russo-Turkish history pretty well begins and ends with the Crimean War. But the "sick man of Europe" took a long time a'dying, and later fighting around Plevna in modern Bulgaria forms the subject of Turkish Gambit.

In 1877, Plevna became the site of a celebrated siege when the Turkish commander, Osman Pasha, withstood three Russian attacks. Akunin follows his dashing hero, spy, adventurer and detective Erast Fandorin into imbroglios and seraglios as he gets caught up in the conflict. Also involved is liberated cigarette-smoking Varvara Suvorovna, whose father has divided his daughter's life into three phases: imp in a skirt, perishing nuisance and loony nihilist. Fandorin encounters her second incarnation while travelling into the heart of the Russian camp. Spies are sneaking through the lines, and Fandorin becomes a sort of tsarist James Bond.

The historical aspects come over most forcibly. But, sadly, Akunin seems to have lost the main principle of the historical novel, which is that it should stand as good fiction. People and action are overwhelmed here by indigestible slabs of information. I love History Lite, but this is history as boggy mire.

Barbara Nadel takes us to Turkey with the seventh in her Inspector Ikmen series, set in modern Istanbul. Ikmen, a sceptic, is dealing with Kabbalah, the Jewish occult tradition which has become trendy. It's a complex plot: several teenagers have been murdered, a mysterious English teacher with an interest in magic and alchemy has disappeared, and hideous graffiti have appeared on the walls of a historic church.

The novel offers the heady brew we have come to expect from Nadel: bizarre sexuality, witchcraft, a room covered in blood, death in ancient places. This is all made credible as Ikmen moves through both the Istanbul of traditional beliefs and the modern city of cyber-junkies and kids in Goth fashions.

Set on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, the book reflects the Middle Eastern dread at the impending action. It's an unflinching picture of a society which draws from the past and present, but above all a strong mystery narrative tugs the reader along. Story first, history second!

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