`A Chemical Prison’ by Barbara Nadel

Sunday’s Zaman, Turkey
Aug 17, 2008

`A Chemical Prison’ by Barbara Nadel

I can remember rushing home from high school to watch "Quincy, M.D."
on television, one of the first television series to highlight the
work of a forensic pathologist.

It was a great crime series — where the pathologist found something
suspicious on, or in, the body and then proceeded to make up for the
incompetence of the police by solving the case himself.

I was later to learn that life for a real forensic pathologist was
very different. One pathologist interviewed on the Web said, "In
contrast to the popular image of the television show ‘Quincy,’ we
usually do not run around the city solving murder mysteries, although
it would be interesting!" However shows such as "CSI" (which you can
watch on at least two channels on Digitürk every night of the
week) have given us a glamorized image of the forensic pathologist’s

"Quincy, M.D." ran for 186 episodes between 1976 and 1983, a sure sign
of its popularity. It spawned a whole genre of forensic crime shows,
on both sides of the Atlantic. In each show a key feature of the plot
line is the relationship between the chief forensic investigator and
the chief police investigator.

In "Crossing Jordan" (also on Digitürk) the police officer
Woody harbors romantic feelings for Jordan, who resists, preferring
friendship because she believes it to be safer.

In the original "CSI" (Las Vegas) policeman Brass is a captain in the
homicide division and works closely with the grave shift CSI team. He
is a close friend of CSI Gil Grissom (whom he granted with his power
of attorney). The show has been heavily criticized almost since its
debut by police and district attorneys, who feel that "CSI" portrays
an inaccurate perception of how police solve crimes.

More realistic, perhaps, is "Waking the Dead," a British television
crime drama series featuring a team of police officers, led by DS
Peter Boyd. His multi-disciplinary team includes a psychological
profiler and a forensic scientist. The latter does not hesitate to
stand up to Boyd, when necessary.

Maybe in a desire to bring the pathologist to the fore, the BBC also
created "Silent Witness." Again, the series is often criticized for
apparently showing the pathologist (Sam Ryan) actively investigating
the crime. The police hardly feature! This characteristic of
pathologist as urban hero follows on earlier American series.

When Rob Chapman, one of the few UK government accredited forensic
pathologists was asked who is best: Sam Ryan of "Silent Witness" or
"Quincy, M.D.," he replied: "Well my job is nothing like theirs
[thankfully]. I suppose the pathology is similar, but I definitely
would not want to be chasing suspects and interviewing witnesses in
the way they do on television. I think that Sam Ryan is a bit too
dour. Quincy is much more entertaining."

Perhaps my favorite police officer-pathologist relationship is that
between Chief Inspector Morse of the Oxford police, and the
pathologist Max. (The books by Colin Dexter can be seen dramatized on
Hallmark Channel in Turkey.) Often called to a crime scene from an
official dinner, Max would arrive in his dinner jacket, and within 20
seconds the gruff police inspector would expect time of death and
cause of death to have been identified. Smart witticisms would always

Following in such a great tradition, it would be surprising if Barbara
Nadel’s crime novels set in Ä°stanbul failed to give us a
wonderful relationship between a police officer and his pathologist
colleague. Inspector Ã?etin Ä°kmen and Arto Sarkissian
have been friends since boyhood. "As children the two of them had
shared their play and their thoughts in equal measure. As adults that
state of affairs had not really changed except for their respective

As can be guessed from their names, theirs is a friendship that
crosses racial and religious divides. Ä°kmen is a shabbily
dressed Turk (he always brings images of Peter Falk as Columbo to my
mind!) and Sarkissian is "a round and jolly little Armenian."

Nadel cleverly uses their friendship, and the fact that the victim may
or may not be Armenian — and the only thing known in the neighborhood
about the man who appears to have kept him prisoner is that he is
Armenian — to delicately examine the relationship between the
majority and this minority.

Without side-stepping the very real issues, she has a character
conclude that "Whether we are Turks, whatever they are, Greeks,
Armenians, Venetians, all of us who live in this city are bound by the
irrefutable fact that we are Ä°stanbulites."

But "A Chemical Prison" is about much more than just the Turk-Armenian
relationship. Nadel cleverly weaves into the plot the story of the
Ottoman cage. The victim seems to have been a prisoner in a gilded
cage, in an old house called the Sacking House, which backs on to
Topkapı Palace.

Although at first sight a barbaric practice, the cage replaced the
previous custom that when a new sultan ascended to the throne, his
first act would be to order his brothers killed, to avoid attempts to
overthrow him. Royal fratricide was the standard of the day — and not
just those who had been born, pregnant concubines would also be thrown
into the Bosporus in sacks (that had been sewn in the Sacking House)
to avoid the birth of other potential contenders to the throne.

All of this changed in 1590 when the compassionate Ahmet ascended the
throne. Instead of murdering his brother Mustafa, he ordered him to
live with his grandmother in a single room of the harem known as the
Golden Cage. A special room, it had windows only on the second floor,
and a slot for delivering food. Though it was beautifully decorated on
the inside, it was merely an exquisite prison cell. The sultans that
followed, followed suit. Sadly, this meant that when those who had
spent their whole life in the Golden Cage were released at the death
of the sultan, they were often mad.

Ä°kmen and Sarkissian become embroiled in a case that has all
the hallmarks of a 20th century Ottoman cage. Nadel uses the facts of
the case as they emerge to cleverly question some practices used to
contain mental patients (the title "A Chemical Prison" refers to the
use of drugs to sedate a sane boy). Is this a novel that reconciles
Ä°stanbul’s present with the shadows of its past? Or is it
purely a good, fast-paced detective novel that keeps you guessing?
Maybe, it is a study in the issues of jailing and freedom — depicted
by what Ä°kmen calls "the old Turkish custom of paying to
release caged pigeons and thereby obtaining a blessing for setting
something free."

"A Chemical Prison" by Barbara Nadel, published by Headline, 6.99
pounds in paperback, ISBN: 978-074726218-3

17 August 2008, Sunday


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