Tears of Pearl
by Tasha Alexander
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Tears of Pearl is the fourth mystery in the Lady Emily Ashton series, set in the late nineteenth century. Best read in order, to avoid spoilers, the series begins with a young English widow discovering, after her husband dies in Greece, that he was more interesting than she knew and also that she has an unladylike taste for adventure.
In Tears of Pearl, Emily has remarried. It is 1892. She and her diplomat husband are off to the romantic Ottoman Empire for their honeymoon. Though physically stirred by her husband (their teasing repartee can seem too modern), she can't help being distracted when their dining companion on the train reveals a mysterious tragedy in his past and, minutes later, collapses from an overdose of chloral hydrate, a common sleeping medication of the time. Later, after an opera performance at the Topkapi Palace, one of the sultan's numerous wives is murdered. Only another woman can be allowed into the harem to question the women there, and Emily is eager to be of service.
The details of the harem system in the declining Ottoman Empire are well-researched and fascinating, the harem women memorably sketched: "Behind the table sat a woman, silver hair flowing down her back, the lines that etched her face somehow lending elegance to her appearance. She leaned forward on her elbows, then dropped back, puffing all the while on a long pipe." Emily herself never quite coheres as a character, sometimes bantering light-heartedly over dangerous risks, sometimes panicky over fears which the novel's tone doesn't prepare the reader to take seriously. She can also be dense on occasion, missing at least one obvious clue. The closing chapters of Tears of Pearl, though, provide just about everything a reader could want in a light mystery: a last-minute twist, a spooky setting, and the thrill of a murderous confrontation from which it seems impossible to escape. (2009; 307 pages, including a brief Author's Note separating history from fiction)
More about Tears of Pearl at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Previous novels in the Lady Emily Ashton mystery series:
#1: And Only to Deceive (2005), in which Emily stumbles across a dangerous secret involving stolen Greek artifacts while learning more about her late husband. More info
#2: A Poisoned Season (2007), in which Emily is stalked by a cat-burglar who has been stealing treasures that once belonged to Marie Antoinette. More info
#3: A Fatal Waltz (2008), in which the husband of one of Emily's friends is arrested and charged with murdering a noblewoman during a party.
Nonfiction about harem women in the Ottoman Empire:
Dreaming of East: Western Women and the Exotic Allure of the Orient by Barbara Hodgson (2005). More info
Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel and the Ottoman Harem by Reina Lewis (2004). More info
Harem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier (1989). More info
"The Sultanate of Women", a brief historical sketch of the role of women in the Ottoman Empire at Channel4.com
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