"My one single favorite book of the year." — Anthony Boucher, Edgar Award-winning critic for The New York Times Book Review Turkish philosopher and scholar Nuri Bey lives for his books and longs to study at Oxford. His dream is unattainable without the help of his rich patron, Madame Miasma, so when she asks Bey to deliver a parcel to a friend of hers, he readily agrees. The simple-sounding favor leads to Bey's unwitting participation in a fateful string of events, from an airport shootout with members of an international drug smuggling ring to his sudden and unexpected involvement with a rootless British teenager. This atmospheric tale of murder and suspense unfolds in Istanbul, which provides a vivid backdrop of minarets, mosques, and the Bosphorus, the dark and winding waterway that bisects the city. Winner of the 1962 Gold Dagger award from the British Crime Writers' Association, it colorfully portrays the differences between British and Turkish sensibilities in the 1960s. The story reflects a society at the crossroads of Europe and Asia that's caught between a proud sultanic past and a compelling modern future.
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About the Author
Joan Fleming (1908–80) twice received the Gold Dagger Award for Best Novel, awarded by the British Crime Writers' Association, for When I Grow Rich in 1962 and for Young Man, I Think You're Dying in 1970. Fleming published five children's books before her first adult crime novel, 1949's Two Lovers Too Many, after which she wrote more than 30 other books in the genre. Her novel The Deeds of Dr. Deadcert was the basis for the 1958 film Rx for Murder.
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Between the two concrete blocks of new flats, separated by a small stretch of hard-trodden earth and half a dozen fine plane trees, stood a decrepit old wooden house. A fair size, it was built of horizontally-placed planks of wood; beaten by the sun, smoothed by the wind and shaken by earthquakes, its silvery-grey uneven walls rose to a second story and were capped by a turret, or look-out room, perched absurdly on the extreme northern corner, where it was possible to stand, like Sister Anne, scanning the horizon, a few feet away: a wall of not very solid concrete.
Inside the house, Nuri bey stood in his wreck of a kitchen and ate yoghourt from a shallow bowl. He had spent a profitable day completing his own analysis of St. Paul's preaching of the gospel at Konia. That no one would ever read it, or show the slightest interest in it, was of no concern to the author; he was satisfied that it was a scholarly piece of work.
If asked point-blank, Nuri bey would say that he was neither a Moslem nor a Christian nor a Buddhist but a philosopher who had acquired some of the habit of thought of all three. But because he had drawn in the teachings of the Koran with his mother's milk, he was aware that Allah is closer to a man than the vein in his neck and therefore he did nothing deliberately of which he knew Allah would not approve. Though his personal cleanliness was exquisite, his kitchen was pretty filthy and, when he had finished the yoghourt, he tossed the container down amongst a pile of similar bowls, tea glasses and other unwashed dishes where it would lie, walked over by flies, until such time as there were no clean utensils left and he would be obliged to wash up.
The large narrow table in the centre of his wide hall was covered with a cloth of pale green satin, exquisitely embroidered with silver and gold thread and many-coloured silks. Upon it lay a three-hundred-year-old copy of the Koran, a small engraved dagger, a copy of The Weekly Times still wrapped in the covering in which it had travelled from London, a similarly-wrapped copy of the New Statesman and Paris Soir.
With the dagger, Nuri bey neatly ripped the covers off, smoothed the periodicals flat and slipped them into his shabby leather dispatchcase. Briskly he buttoned the front of his brown double-breasted jacket; too briskly, one of the buttons flew off, shooting several yards away and disappearing beneath a great metal-studded chest. Down on his knees, with the aid of the dagger, he retrieved it and, finding a needle and thread, laboriously sewed the button into place.
Everything now under control, he stood by the front door and took a look round his hall. Deeply superstitious, Nuri bey afterwards believed that Allah was at that moment telling him something, warning him of impending disaster, but that he, Nuri bey, being neither a good Moslem nor anything else, had not heeded. After many years of uneventful and tranquil existence, everything was about to be changed; never again would his home be quite the same inviolable place.
He locked his front door carefully and ran down the front steps. Tall for a Turk (but descended on his mother's side from a Circassian youth, who had grown immensely tall through being breast-fed by a series of wet-nurses till he was ten), he strode along the street with the dispatchcase tucked under his arm in a business-like way. His face was smooth and a pale silvery-tan colour, with the texture of a hazel-nut. His hair was hardly hair at all, being a grey scrubby growth, like lichen on a barn roof and growing a long way back from his smooth tan forehead. His lips were thin and, though the kindest and gentlest of men, he had inherited a cruel line to his mouth from another of his warrior forebears. He had abnormally big eyes, the colour of motor oil in a large tin container, heavily lashed and oddly luminous. This strange luminosity was not the result of applied drugs nor any secret vice but simply his soul or his spirit, overstimulated by continuous contact with the writings of the great minds of the world's thinkers and prophets, shining out. So grand a light shone in his head that he was neither observant nor curious. His eyes were so constantly fixed upon the stars that he tripped and stumbled along the familiar uneven streets of his native city and quite often trod on a starving kitten or bumped into a concrete lamp-post.
He leaped on to a tram, crowded to boiling point, and clung to its perimeter as it swayed and lurched down through the narrow streets of Pera to the Galata Bridge where he ran to catch a ferry across the Bosphorus to Uskudar, on the Asia side, and then a bus going north.
Most large wooden houses on the Bosphorus are called either yalis or palaces, whilst the cheaper and shabbier hotels are called palas. The yali or villa of his friend Madame Miasma, was some distance up the Bosphorus beyond the Sweet Waters of Asia, a stretch where the current ran strong and deep and where anchorage was almost impossible. The bus stopped short of the front gate on the main road, from which one descended some few shallow steps into a cool, tree-shaded, flagged courtyard.
Nuri bey had made the journey hundreds of times. Weekly for years he called upon his elderly friend and spent the afternoon and early evening reading the papers he brought with him, translating the news of the world for her into Turkish and discussing world affairs with her over glasses of tea and slices of dry bread.
But to-day, the moment he had stepped from the bus and turned towards her gateway, he could see that something was wrong. From a distance, what looked like bundles or sacks of rags seemed to be piled up by the great metal gates, all over the pavement and overflowing into the road so that the bus made a sharp detour to avoid them. As he approached, Nuri bey's heart lurched into his throat and nearly choked him. The sacks of rags were human beings and they were chanting from the thirty-sixth chapter of the Koran which is sung when a death occurs ... We have ordained phases for the moon, which daily wanes and in the end appears as a bent and withered twig. ...
In the few seconds it took to walk amongst the small crowd of squatters, push open the gates, descend the three shallow steps and walk across the courtyard, Nuri bey became a visionary, no longer aware of his surroundings: he was in Oxford, England, walking along High Street as depicted in the picture postcard, photographed from Magdalen Bridge, which he kept in a prominent position in his drawing-room. His companion was Professor Toynbee and they were deep in discussion.
Nuri bey had never been outside his country. He lived on the income from renting a few old wooden houses. But he had known for many years, because she had more or less said so, that when Miasma died there would be enough money for him to achieve the ambition of his life. Though he had never so much as formed the thought into words in his mind: when she dies I shall go to Oxford, the whole great glory of it broke over him and transfigured his face so that, unsuitably, he burst radiant, into the house, to find Hadji the chauffeur kneeling, in the hall, prostrate in prayer.
For once Nuri bey joined in the prayer, kneeling beside the servant, turned towards Mecca, and prostrating himself likewise, and from him rose a prayer of thanksgiving.
Having finished his prayers, the chauffeur broke into soft eerie chanting. Nuri bey got up. The hall was a broad place with a marble flagged floor from which rose, in two shallow sweeps, a wooden staircase which turned back on itself, showing its carved underside to the hall and joining the first floor in a great commotion of carving against the hall ceiling. Under the small bridge-like landing where the staircases met, two great mirror-doors opened into a big room which was so close to the Bosphorous that it was like an underwater room full of lucent green shifting light, the long windows on the water side now fringed with creeper.
The walls were painted with what had once been elaborate murals of flowers and creeper and more flowers, now faded and stained and the lower part obscured by birdcages all around the room which both looked and sounded untidy. The gaily coloured birds inside filled the air with cheeps and twitters and pipings, and threw scraps of seed and sand out on to the floor. In the centre stood a round Victorian back-to-back sofa or love-seat, covered in purple brocade, shabby and worn now, the stuffing bursting out between the frequent buttons which battened it to the frame.
The balcony of Miasma's bedroom above jutted out and deprived the great room below of any sky-light; all the light it had was reflected from the water. A hateful room, Nuri bey thought, and realised that he had always thought so but had never dared to admit it.
He put down his dispatch-case and walked over to the double french windows, now wide open. A few feet away the fierce alien water, river water from the great Russian rivers, rushed past purposefully. In earlier days caiques or gaily coloured gondola-like boats, would bring arrivals at the yali to the marble steps and two stalwart slaves would hold it firmly to the bank whilst the passengers disembarked. But now people no longer arrived by boat. Nuri bey stared down into the water, black and almost soundless as it slipped by.
Money, money, money ... he was thinking. How he despised it! Yet how he treasured that which money could bring! With money he could buy occasionally from the old man in the second-hand bookshop down by the mosque of Bayazit II, the rare, almost priceless, illuminated Koran; old Sanskrit writings; treasures of ancient Buddhist philosophy.
And now ... Oxford and the books in the Bodleian Library. He would go by train because then he would be sure of getting there; first he would get a room at a small hotel in St. Giles and then he would go to the Ashmolean where he would look at the things which he had dreamed of seeing, King Alfred's jewel for instance, then he would go to one of the colleges where he would ask for the young Prince, as he still called him, a great-grandson of the Sultan Ahmed II, and a relation of Nuri bey, and this young man who excelled in the sport of rowing (Nuri bey believed he was called a cox), would take Nuri bey round and show him the splendours and the glories of that fabled city. Then he and Nuri bey would have a hot dog and perhaps two, and many many days of such delight would lie ahead. Allah be praised! All this and perhaps Professor Toynbee, too!
With an optimism which was undiminished over the years, Nuri bey kept an up-to-date passport in his breast pocket in case, rather like the Mad Hatter who always took a plate in case he found a plum cake.
Smiling, he turned round to go back to the bird-room. His lips remained stretched in a smile but his eyes lost their light and became mere holes for seeing through.
There she was, very much alive, standing before a birdcage thrusting scraps of lettuce between the bars and making her absurd tiny cluttering sounds, like someone insane who with age and envy was grown into a hoop ... or was it her ghost?
Was it perhaps that his eye had registered this sight so often that he could still see that which was not there? Alas, no!
Without turning her head she said in Turkish: "You have heard the bad news, my lion?"
Nuri bey could say nothing. His throat moved but no words came. He walked across and kissed her hand.
"A sad day. A disaster! My friend of a lifetime, and servant, gone, by the will of Allah!"
Valance, the shadow of Miasma upon earth, had evidently died. Valance, the French companion, grown old but unstaid and skittish in spite of her years, with her wrinkled face, her slim figure and still unfaded blue eyes, her inability to speak a word of the Turkish language, her coy mannerisms, her loyalty to her mistress, her unfailing cheerfulness, her robust good health, her endless talk about her many relatives in France and her annual holiday in Paris, her dislike of Turkish food, manners, men ... evidently dead.
Nuri bey could make no reply. He walked slowly to the sofa, picked up his dispatch-case and drew out the newspapers thoughtfully.
Miasma moved from cage to cage, tearing at the lettuce she held and pushed the mutilated fragments towards her eager birds.
"Have you nothing to say, Nuri bey?"
"Of course. I'm sorry. You will miss her."
"Miss her!" Miasma repeated bitterly. "I do not know how I can live my life without her. I shall have to leave here."
"How can you possibly leave here?"
"And go and live in a hotel ... maybe."
"That is a fantasy! You ... live in a hotel!" Nuri bey shook his head, smiling sadly, a shadow of his former smile.
"Valance has been with me, with the exception of the one month out of every year when she went home, for a long time and during all those days, weeks, months, years I have never dressed nor undressed, nor made my bed, had a meal, nor brushed my hair, nor threaded a needle, nor made a single stitch with the thread, nor put on my shoes, nor gone to the hamam" — she closed her eyes for several moments — "without her."
Still far from fluent, Nuri bey stood before her with hands outstretched as though asking what was to be done.
"You will be telling me to get a temporary maid; I do not like to have a servant always with me; Valance was more than a maid, she was my companion. Hadji and I will have to go to Beirut, to the hotel where I often stay when Valance is away. But I do not like Beirut very much and the woman there does not look after me very well, though she thinks she does!"
And how had Valance died?
With all the talkativeness and attention to detail of those who have come through some sudden disaster Madame told how Valance had died. She had seemed perfectly well yesterday. They had spent the day as usual and during the afternoon had taken a taxi to a cinema where they had seen a cowboy film which they had both much enjoyed. On the return, Hadji had met them at Uskudar and driven them home. Valance had brought her supper which Madame had taken here, in the bird-room, on a tray at that small table. After supper she had dozed a little, sitting here on the sofa but later she had walked in the garden. It was a beautiful evening and the Bosphorus was looking its best. She had strolled in the garden for a few minutes, wrapped up in her sables. Valance had called from the steps of the bird-room: "Madame, dear Madame! You will take cold. Come in now, chérie."
She had walked back and stood for a moment there — she pointed — just there on the steps, where Nuri bey had been standing a few minutes ago, overlooking the water. Valance had come out to stand beside her and together they had discussed what they were going to do to-day, Monday. Valance had said suddenly that she did not feel well. She put her hands to her head and said that a great pain had struck her in the head. She had never complained of pain or fatigue or of any physical symptom in all the years Miasma had known her and now she cried aloud with pain. Miasma had gone back into the bird-room, now lighted, and taken the flask of brandy (which she took medicinally) from her supper tray and returned ... but Valance had gone. Calling her, Miasma had followed her, as she thought, into the garden round the side of the house.
"Valance! Valance! Where are you, old woman? Come and have some of this fine old brandy." Miasma's hands fell to her sides, palms forwards. "It was too late. A stroke, they say, an attack of dizziness, the pain, sudden death. She fell forwards into the water. ..."
Nuri bey caught his breath sharply. "So the old woman drowned!"
"They think not, they think perhaps she died as she entered the water. Struck down by the hand of Allah," she added piously. "They found her early this morning, down in the shallows by the Sweet Waters of Asia. She was taken to the mortuary where they examined her. I telephoned for Dr. MacPherson, who went at once and saw her body. Later we had a long talk, he and I. He said there was no doubt she died of a stroke; the severe headache she complained of proved that she had a condition which is well known in the medical profession, I cannot remember what he called it."
"They brought her body back here?"
"Yes. Hadji cleared the marble table in the salon, and she lies there. The imam is with her now."
Nuri bey gave a cry of distress. "But she is a Christian!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "When I Grow Rich"
Copyright © 1990 Lucy Barlow.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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