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Carina Burman, Hästen från porten: ett österländskt ävertyr (The Ottoman Horse: An Eastern Adventure)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2008. ISBN: 9789100117290

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2009:1

This equine mystery is the third outing for crinolined sleuth Euthanasia Bondeson, after adventures in London and Rome. She is a redoubtable protagonist, hailed delightedly by one American blogger as a great discovery for fans of Amelia Peabody, the Edwardian Egyptologist and amateur detective heroine of a popular series by Elizabeth Peters. Burman’s witty and thoroughly researched pastiches are very much in the spirit of the times, part of what D.J. Taylor called ‘the current mania for mock-Victorian detective stories’.The real-life model for the first ‘crime fiction’ from the pens of writers such as Wilkie Collins has lately been explored in Kate Summerscale’s bestselling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), but it is already some years since Burman invented her Detective Inspector Owain Evans, Miss Bondeson’s accomplice in the London case. He, like Whicher, was one of the initial corps of plain-clothes detectives employed by Scotland Yard. Euthanasia Bondeson, however, shuns the intellectual forensic puzzling of such men, for she is a prolific writer of novels herself, and ever willing to embroider reality. Her crime investigations are driven more by the thirst for literary inspiration than by depth of psychological insight. Miss Bondeson’s globetrotting observations would make her equally at home in the genre of Victorian travelogue, and Burman makes sly references throughout to many famous travellers.The serious practical problems of travel at that time are especially apparent for ladies, but need not deter the bold. Scholars of the nineteenth-century Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer may well surmise that, just as Bremer’s 1851 London diary provided Burman’s jumping-off point for The Streets of Babylon, so her Lifvet i gamla verlden (1860-62) a three-volume record of ambitious travels reaching as far as the Holy Land, underlies this new novel. Is Bremer’s tale of the theft of a coveted horse the germ from which Burman’s story grew? Miss Bondeson now travels with a motley band of friends: her scatterbrained companion Agnes, the poetic medical student Alf and a lively street urchin named Beatrice, adopted in Rome. It is 1853, and as the novel opens they are on horseback in the desert of Syria, heading for Petra with their trusty dragoman. Frustrated by the lack of banks and postal services in the desert, Miss Bondeson is more encumbered than before by her duty of care. Even so, Alf persuades her to invest in a magnificent Arab steed, the envy of all the Bedouins around.The horse is stolen some days later, and their hunt for it brings them at length to Constantinople, a seething city of many languages and creeds, and a bone of contention between world powers, so diplomatic tensions are rife and spies are everywhere. Evans of the Yard pops up, working secretly for the British side, having surprisingly abandoned his sense of commitment to London’s East End. There is much fun to be had from Euthanasia’s appetites, vanities and general bumptiousness. Hers is a distinctive narrative voice, exuberant, sometimes inconsistent, with a fondness for anthropomorphism and rather purple prose. Her wide-ranging and vibrant portrait of Constantinople, with descriptions of the local food, baths and other customs, leads occasionally to loss of story momentum. Embracing envoys and ambassadors, sultans and harems, and even Euthanasia’s sister Aurora, long-suffering wife of a Russian aristo- crat, the plot rambles on to a somewhat desultory conclusion, scattering minor characters and loose ends in its wake. The slightly underwhelming denouement involves infiltration of the Russian Embassy to interrogate a spy, and a hasty escape from a roof down petticoat ropes, just as a high-profile figure is being murdered. More rewarding is the visit to view the Sultan’s picturesque mounted war game. Both episodes allow Euthanasia to sport the male attire she enjoys, this time with the added local colour in the form of jodhpurs. Cross-dressing and its concealments are in evidence, as they were in the London adventure, and some of the main characters one thought one knew seem suddenly markedly confused about their sexual orientation. But Miss Bondeson delicately draws the line at graphic detail: encounters are tastefully hinted at, or conveniently interrupted. Relationships grow so complicated that it is something of a relief to both narrator and reader when the group disbands at the end of the novel, with Alf staying in Constantinople, while Evans returns to Scotland Yard and the plucky female contingent sets sail for an unknown destination.

Also by Carina Burman

Other reviews by Sarah Death

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