Mehmet Murat Somer’s The Prophet Murders (Serpent’s Tail, $15) is attention grabbing from its opening paragraph for one simple reason: the narrator —a Turkish transvestite residing in Istanbul who has a crazily wide range of interests and occupations (from Aikido to running a night club) -possesses the kind of storytelling voice that makes a listener reply with, “Please, tell me more.”
A world-weary sophisticate (“Life goes on, despite the pain” is characteristic of her I’ve-seen-a-lot-and-I’ve-been-hurt-often attitude), she’s witty, observant, and ever thoughtful.
Even while visiting an elderly gossip who waxes her bits, she thinks, “I was born with shapely eyebrows. I have never resorted to hormones, and have no intention of doing so. I glory in being both Man and Woman. As for waxing… it is a basic and constant necessity.”
While she’s good company, she’s also an excellent guide to point out to readers a city that is exotic, bizarre, threatening, and enchanting in equal measure.
In Somer’s novel it’s a city of shadows and contradictions resulting from the conflict between the conservative and fundamentalist official culture and the subcultures that thrive at night and behind closed doors.
As the novel opens, the narrator is reading a sensational and mean-spirited newspaper account of a transvestite who burned to death in a fire. A suspicious fire, it turns out. In fact it’s one death a deranged killer intends to turn into a series.
Seeing his efforts as being those of a religious soldier (one, admittedly, who’s obsessed with abominations and infidels), the killer imagines that Istanbul will be a holier place if he rids it of transvestites.
Despite the heavy-seeming tone and gruesome subject mater, Somer keeps his story surprisingly chipper.
Jokingly nicknamed Poirot by one of her numerous friends, the unnamed narrator prefers to call herself Miss Marple (though prim, courteous and tweedy she is not); and her high-heeled sleuthing features violence and brushes with death, but also a colourful crew of queer characters that lighten the mood considerably.
In fact since Somer’s account of the eventual detection of the killer isn’t exactly the most complex and twisty of plots ever conceived, it’s the city’s dens of vice, the camp wit of the secondary characters and the droll philosophy of the detective herself that that holds us in thrall.