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    Review of THE WINTER THIEF by Jenny White (see her website)

    W.W. Norton, March 2010

    The Ottoman Empire has long been a place where Christians, Moslems and Jews can live together in safety and Magistrate Kamil Pasha values that and wants to preserve the empire. But other nations lust over rich Ottoman provinces, and internally, a struggle for power weakens the empire. When the Ottoman bank is robbed and dynamited, Kamil is called upon to solve the crime--but the head of the secret police organization is convinced he already knows the criminals--terrorist Armenians who hope to fund a revolution.

    Hamstrung by weak support from his superiors, opposition from the secret police, and concerned both about the woman he loves and his missing brother-in-law, Kamil nevertheless investigates--until he is framed for murder. He uncovers evidence that a socialistic utopian group is attempting to set up a community in Ottoman-Armenian soil and that they may be behind both a gun smuggling plot and the robbery. But he doesn't believe they represent the revolutionary threat the secret police describe.

    On the Sultan's orders, Kamil travels to Trabzon, and Armenian territories to investigate rumors of an impending revolt. There he finds that the secret police and Kurdish irregulars are stirring up exactly the kind of revolt the Sultan feared.

    Author Jenny White creates a vivid picture of Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Kamil finds himself trying to make the best choices in an environment where strict adherence to the law might result in slaughter of thousands. Vahid, head of the secret police, is a devious and angry antagonist driven both by ambition and by his hopes for revenge. The leaders of the socialist community are believably naieve, willing to commit vast crimes in the belief that they are bringing in a wonderful new world. White is at her best when she's writing her deeply disturbed female characters. Kamil's sister seeks her missing husband while wondering if he was unfaithful to her, socialist Vera tries to find a publisher for an Armenian translation of The Communist Manifesto, to the deeply disturbed and homocidal Elif whom Kamil loves but who suffers repercussions from the murder of her husband and son.

    White may have relied a bit much on coincidence, and I would have liked Vahid to be a bit more rational in his attempt to become the power behind the throne. But White's strong writing, the intriguing characters, and the wonderful setting in the declining days of the Ottoman Empire add up to a book that was hard to put down.

    Three Stars

    Reviewed 1/26/11

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