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A crime writer's guide to modern Turkey

US scholar-turned-writer Jenny White uses crime, passion and political foment to decipher Turkey.

Tourists visit the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, March 2, 2010. Turkey's largest city, which straddles the Bosphorous Strait where Europe meets Asia, is a 2010 European Capital of Culture filled with the treasures from the Roman and Ottoman empires. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — It begins with the image of a man placing a soft-boiled egg in his mouth. He sits without chewing, eyes lowered, until the egg is gone.

“It was not until I was in my 20s that I understood. Anticipation is the brilliant goad to pleasure,” writes professor-turned-mystery-writer Jenny White in the “The Sultan's Seal.”

One day, while walking along the Bosporus — Turkey’s famed waterway that forms the boundary between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul — this image of the slowly savored egg appeared to White, word-for-word in a flash if inspiration. So began the first of her series of crime novels set in the dying Ottoman Empire.

With her newest novel, “The Winter Thief” just out, White sat down with GlobalPost to talk about the tension between fiction and reality, why her use of Armenian characters may mean her book never appears in Turkish and the lessons the dying Ottoman Empire held for today's Turkey.

In a culture that puts a premium on loyalty to the state, White’s determined protagonist is Special Prosecutor Kamil Pasha, a magistrate of the 1888 Ottoman Empire torn between his devotion to the Sultan and his honor.

“The Winter Thief” opens with the scene of a beautiful woman carrying The Communist Manifesto in Armenian through the streets of Istanbul, unaware of the men following her. A bank robbery and cache of illegal weapons soon bring Kamil Pasha on the case, and pit him against a dangerous enemy: Vahid, head of a special branch of the secret police, who has convinced the sultan that an Armenian commune is leading a secessionist movement and should be destroyed, along with surrounding villages. Kamil must stop the massacre, but finds himself framed for murder and accused of treason, with the lives of his family and the woman he loves in danger.

“What happens when your duty to the law contradicts your own moral belief? Do you choose the law or yourself?” White said. “You have to make a choice, even if that choice destroys you.”A professor of anthropology at Boston University and a Turkey specialist, White masterfully forces her characters to make moral decisions in seemingly impossible circumstances.

This tension between self-preservation and ethical behavior is a fundamental dilemma, and one that White believes Turkey is facing today.

“You have secularists who feel that loyalty to the state is more important than anything,” White said. “They are placed in a moral quandary between their support of civic rights and their fear of what that could mean for the country. They are afraid of Turkey turning into Iran, afraid of Turkey disappearing, afraid of Turkey losing its sense of identity.”

The questions Kamil Pasha faces may have a difference face — loyalty to the Sultan, or loyalty to the state — but this fear of a changing political landscape will likely resonate with those familiar with Turkey today. And in the end, Kamil Pasha’s battles may hold some surprising lessons for those on both sides of the fight.