The Bellini Card

by Jason Goodwin

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin The Bellini Card opens with a description of a corpse that's among the most beautiful in the mystery genre. "He sank slowly through the dark water, arms out, feet pointed: like a Christ, or a dervish, casting a benediction on the sea. The stone at his feet hit the mud with a soft explosion, his knees buckled, and in a moment he was bowing gracefully with the tide. He had always been graceful, pliant, too, when fixing a price, a man who traded and left something in the deal for the other fellow."

Featuring a eunuch who investigates crimes for the Ottoman sultan, The Bellini Card is #3 in the "Investigator Yashim" series. This time, the corpse appears in Venice, a fascinating locale for an Ottoman murder mystery, given the centuries-old connections between Venice and Istanbul (formerly Constantinople, capital of Byzantium). In 1840, a new, young sultan has come to power in Istanbul. He has learned that a painting of Mehmet the Conqueror, his grandfather's grandfather, by fifteenth-century Venetian artist Gentile Bellini still exists. Although portraits are forbidden by Islamic law, the sultan wants Yashim to seek it out and buy it for him.

A sultan's order must be obeyed. However, as his vizier points out, certain orders fall into a special class. "Watery commands. Written on water, Yashim." Yashim's friend the Polish Ambassador (himself a watery fellow, since Poland, carved up by various powers, no longer officially exists) comments that he's "in a fix," bound to antagonize either the sultan or his vizier. Yashim proposes a neat solution, and the ambassador sets out for Venice.

Venice, "Istanbul's alter-ego in the Mediterranean" (as Goodwin has said), is in a state of decay that is beautiful, sad and, for those who stay more than a short time, even sickening, not unlike the corpse in the harbor. Goodwin evokes it masterfully while serving up a mystery as complex and labyrinthine as its Byzantine characters. (2008; 307 pages, including an author interview discussing the history behind the story)

More about The Bellini Card at Powell's Books or

Other mysteries set in Venice:

Interrupted Aria by Beverle Graves Myers (2004), featuring a castrato singer in eighteenth-century Venice; #1 in the Baroque mystery series. More info

In the City of Dark Waters by Jane Jakeman (2006), featuring French Impressionist painter Claude Monet; #2 in the Monet mystery series.
More info

Alibi by Joseph Kanon (2005), a stand-alone mystery/thriller featuring a war crimes investigator from the U.S. in Venice after World War II.
More info

Nonfiction about Venice and Constantinople:

Venetians in Constantinople: Nation, Identity, and Coexistence in the Early Modern Mediterranean by Eric R. Dursteler (2006). More info

Venice and the East: The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture, 1100-1500 by Deborah Howard (2000). More info

Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations by Donald M. Nicol (1989). More info


Photos of the Byzantine architecture of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice at

Back to Historical Novels of the Middle East

Back to Directory of Book Reviews

Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.