A Very Istanbul Murder Mystery

January 2013, TimeOut Istanbul

REVIEW: The Serenity Murders, by Mehmet Murat Somer

serenity murders

The Serenity Murders is a quintessentially Istanbul story. It’s hard to imagine another city in the world that could plausibly host the array of characters and events of Mehmet Murat Somer’s latest installment in the Turkish Delight mystery series.

From the square-jawed police officer who transforms into a glitzy diva inside a nightclub to the traditional older parents oblivious to their son’s relationship with another man, from the kooky fortune-tellers and mafiosos thinly disguised as textile manufacturers to the club-owning, computer-hacking, mystery-solving transvestite heroine who tells the story, The Serenity Murders embeds readers in Istanbul from the start and never lets them forget which city they’re in.

The action begins when Burçak Veral, the narrator, appears on a talk show and receives an on-air call from a man threatening to kill someone close to Veral each week until she finds him. Veral quickly realizes that the murderous caller knows her intimately, tracking her life and movements far too closely for comfort.

As he begins to follow up on his promise, attacking her friends one by one, Veral finds herself in the unusual position of trying to simultaneously escape and apprehend the killer, marveling at his ruthlessness and covert surveillance capabilities even as they terrify her: “Was he an ignorant conservative, or a bully who had developed these skills later on in life? Or a commando who had become immune to murder while he served in the military in southeastern Turkey? An ex-political militant? Or someone who simply suffered from dementia?”

Veral has aroused the caller’s ire, according to him, because she doesn’t “have an ounce of respect for society, or for the values of the Turkish people.” At first, this seems to suggest that her transvestitism is provoking the murder attempts. While the reality is more complicated, Veral’s transvestite identity is central to the novel and gives readers an in-depth glimpse of a side of Istanbul that few might otherwise see.

Veral’s world has many layers: the constellation of drama around her “girls”, the performers she employs at her club, as well as her wider circles of friends and supporters in all walks of life. These include a trusted police officer — rare among Turkish cops, who, Veral says, “always saw transvestites as nothing but trouble (from whom they were nevertheless plenty eager to demand free sex whenever they caught them alone in a quiet corner)” — Veral’s fellow alpha females in the wider transvestite community, and her mentors in various eclectic hobbies, from data hacking to Reiki. Hüseyin, Veral’s ex-lover and favorite taxi driver, is forced by fate into the role of Veral’s main sidekick throughout the story. Author Somer himself even makes a few cameo appearances as the sometime scribe of Veral’s adventures.

This diverse cast creates intrigues and scenarios peripheral to the main action, but just as interesting. In one memorable scene, Veral’s girls assemble outside her apartment to scour her neighborhood for the criminal, recalling the “Take Action” trend in the 1980s when a group of transvestites would “gather to cause all kinds of scenes and raise all kinds of ruckus in revenge for another girl believed to have been wronged.”

Most engaging of all the novel’s characters, however, is Veral herself. Wry, self-assured, sometimes melodramatic, and always prone to elaborate conjecturing, it is difficult to tear away from her voice even when the action in the novel stalls slightly. The most unbelievable aspect of the plot is that someone as sharp as Veral could miss the answer to the mystery long after it has become apparent to most readers. That glitch, and a few other disjointed onversations or awkwardly executed scenes, are the only blemishes in an otherwise fluid and captivating mystery.

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