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istanbul noir

23 december 2021

Not being able to travel much since March 2020, and certainly not overseas, I have taken to reading in order to see the world vicariously. Not that I didn't see the world mostly at second-hand, via the page, long before COVID-19. In 2021 I have been drawn to fiction from places I've never been to, perhaps because stories about places I used to visit are too poignant when read with the chance of never returning. Along these lines I have read novels and stories from Israel, the Arab world, Finland, and now Turkey: Mustafa Ziyalan & Amy Spangler's 2008 Istanbul Noir.

The better Istanbul Noir stories are elaborate and solidly constructed, playing off long-standing thriller conventions. İsmail Güzelsoy's "Tongue of the Flames," reminiscent in some of its devices of Christopher Nolan's film The Prestige, pits the narrator against an implacable magician in an elaborate vendetta plot. Another complicated plot in very short compass, very well-turned, is Bariş Müstecaplioğlu's "An Extra Body." In the tradition of American noirs like Elmore Leonard's or Carl Hiaasen's where each wise guy messes up worse than the one before, "An Extra Body" is twisty and entertaining.

From Hikmet Hükümenoğlu comes another well-made noir, "The Smell of Fish." This one also draws from genre formulas, though more from Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone than from prose. You see the upshot coming a long way off, maybe even as soon as the title, but it is well delivered.

Sadık Yemni's "Burn and Go" also telegraphs its punch, but is no less suspenseful for doing so. The reader sees the peril ahead before the narrator does, in part because the classic conventions of a revenge plot make more sense to a reader of noir than they must to a character supposedly living through the ordeal in real life. But "Burn and Go" also offers twists and ironies that place it above the average noir.

Feryal Tilmaç contributes "Hitching in the Lodos," the seasonal wind that turns Istanbul into a sultry stormscape. Her story involves no crime or detectives; it chronicles a bizarre and ironic descent into its characters' abandoned libidos. İnan Çetin's "Bloody Horn" is more wistful but also noirish, told by a cogitative narrator whose life seems to have reached a dead end until he is given a chance to avenge his parents' murder.

I'm not sure what to make of Mehmet Bilâl's story "The Stepson." The central character's transphobia is on ugly display, but he does form an alliance with a trans woman in order to reach his (noirish) goals. But he continues to loathe the side of himself that is attracted to this woman. I guess I'll remain uneasy with, if intrigued by, the way that Bilâl develops the situation.

But not all of the Istanbul Noir stories are as interesting. Some are just bloody messes; others are topical (about the rise of Islamism in Turkey) and perhaps ephemeral. Still, there's some outstanding craftsmanship in Ziyalan & Spangler's volume.

Ziyalan, Mustafa, and Amy Spangler. Istanbul Noir. New York: Akashic, 2008.