Author Jenny White is a professor of Anthropology and has written academically about the Ottoman Empire. Her knowledge of Turkey, the complicated workings of the political system, the debates surrounding nationality and identity, the innerworkings of power in the harem, and the political maneuvering of the European nations all combine to make this a historically accurate but also well-developed murder mystery.
The main character Kamil Pasha is a Turkish magistrate who trained at Cambridge. As such he straddles his familiar Turkish world and the modernizing British scientific method world. He wants to see his country survive and flourish but he does not ascribe to some of the "traditional" organization of Turkey.
The plot revolves around the discovery of a young British woman who is found drowned. She is wearing a locket that ties her to the sultan's palace. Kamil Pasha works with the daughter of the British ambassador to attempt to discover the identity of the woman and learn how and why she was killed. The story is twisted and interwoven. It is not straight-forward and at the end the resolution is not a neatly tied-up package. White leaves a lot of questions to be answered, which I think is more honest than many mystery novels.
After reading the book I found myself thinking about a criminal investigation in such a society. When men have no access to most women how are they expected to investigate the death of a woman? He had to have the assistance of someone who could breech the inner circle.
One review I read suggested the British character was too flippant and well, dumb. I didn't see that. I thought that White painted a stereotypical character for the time. She used Sybil as a representative Brit who wanted to understand Turkish society but could not divorce herself from her Britishness.
There are two very nitpicky things I disliked about the book:
The chapters with Kamil Pasha were in present tense. Personally I prefer reading books written in past tense. But I understand her literary choice as it separated those chapters from the ones written from another character's perspective that were often about past events.
I would have liked one more chapter to wrap up the story. I felt that she ended a touch too quickly. There is the obvious motivation of having the reader pick up book #2. Yet, I still wanted a little resolution. What happened when the sun rose?
All in all, a big thumbs up. If you like historical mysteries and have any interest in the Middle East - an amazing read!
If you liked The Sultan's Seal, try these books: