The Abyssinian Proof

Written by Jenny White
Review by Lynn Guest


1453. The eve of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. Isaak Metochites prepares to flee the city with his family, taking with him a reliquary placed in his care. It contains The Proof of God, an ancient document carried from Abyssinia by his ancestors that could bring an end to all religious strife.

1887. Istanbul. Kamil Pasha is a magistrate charged with breaking up a ring stealing antiquities and sacred objects and smuggling them out to Europe. A battered reliquary is among the stolen items. An added complication is a series of murders. The dead are apparently victims of rivalry between gangs of smugglers, as each body is marked with the same four knife slashes.

Kamil’s investigations take him to the Sunken Village, where the descendants of Abyssinian slaves live by barter and fencing stolen goods. The village is ruled by Balkis, priestess of a secretive cult. Kamil believes the Abyssinians and their cult are the key to the crimes. Attracted to Balkis and her forceful daughter, he uncovers through them secrets about his own family that leave him emotionally shattered.

White uses the genre of the period crime novel to present a fascinating picture of Istanbul. The plot may be slow to get moving but eventually becomes intriguing if occasionally predictable. She is an anthropologist specializing in Turkish culture, so we are in safe hands as she leads us from Christian Constantinople to Muslim Istanbul. The 19th-century city is vividly drawn: the crowded streets, the crumbling buildings squatting on centuries of ruins, a colourful population from many races. We sense an empire slowly decaying, a backwater of Europe and not quite Asia. Kamil, an important magistrate and an aristocrat, has the reader’s sympathy when he is patronized by low-ranking officials at the British Embassy. He is an appealing hero. As for the Abyssinian cult and indeed, The Proof of God, real or not, they make a convincing and intriguing base for the plot.