An interview with Mehmet Murat Somer
Somer's hero manages a transvestite club in Istanbul by night and works as a computer security consultant by day. He (or she) is also an expert in aikido and Thai kick-boxing. Somer, both a canny businessman and angry over media and entertainment depictions of transgendered people, says: "A transvestite detective was a marketing niche." He also acknowledges frustration with depictions of transvestites as freaks or jokes. And, he says, "I always have my criminals from the `white' society ... in The Kiss Murders right-wing nationalists, in The Gigolo Murder the finance world." ("Hop-Çiki-Yaya," the series' name in the U.K., originated as a cheerleaders' cry and came to be a sly or snide term for gay men, Somer says.)
Penguin has just issued The Kiss Murder, the first of the series to be published in the United States, and plans to bring out The Gigolo Murder in October. The Prophet Murders had appeared earlier in the United Kingdom. Somer has published six novels in the series in Turkish along with an additional book featuring some of the series' minor characters. In a chat with Detectives Beyond Borders, Mehmet Murat Somer talks about his work and its background and reception. He also offers a brief lesson in Turkish etiquette.
Detectives Beyond Borders: Mehmet effendi ...
Mehmet Murat Somer: Well, thank you, but that "effendi" addressing sounds a bit out of fashion, left in the 1920's. Now only janitors are called "effendi." [Ed. note: Here, as elsewhere in this interview, the reader must imagine the smiley icons Somer included in his reply.]
DBB: Jason Goodwin's novel The Snake Stone, also set in Istanbul, includes some köçek girls as minor characters, yet his book is set in the Istanbul of 1838. Are your characters part of that same tradition? If so, how far back does the tradition go in Turkey? What role do transvestites occupy in Turkish culture?
MMS: A lot!!! We have a tradition of men or boys dressing like females and entertaining other men, either dancing (çengi, köçek), or drink servers (saki). And still, the star status in the music industry is occupied by a transsexual, Ms. Bülent Ersoy.
DBB: Your first novel to be translated into English was published with the title The Prophet Murders. Is this a translation of the Turkish title? What is the reaction among Muslims to a title such as that?
MMS: Yes, the title is translated correctly. Although there were some fears before publication, nothing happened. They just raved about the book, possibly because my Turkish publisher was a prestigious one like Penguin here. It acted like a protective shield.
DBB: You set your books in one of the most crowded and most historically cosmopolitan cities in the world, yet they share characteristics with traditional English village mysteries: You gather a group of characters in a small setting (the nightclub), and your narrator/protagonist loves to comment on their quirks. Have village mysteries by authors such as Agatha Christie influenced your work? What crime fiction have you read and enjoyed? Which crime writers, if any, do you feel produce work similar in spirit to yours?
MMS: Naturally I adore the queen of crime fiction, Dame Agatha. My Gigolo Murder is a kind of ode to her style. My all-time favorite is Patricia Highsmith. Also my compatriot Perihan Magden's Escape.
DBB: Why did you choose crime fiction as a vehicle for writing about these characters and their world?
MMS: I like crime fiction. I consider myself a good reader. And I have the idea that crime fiction should and could be also fun, joyful.
DBB: The Prophet Murders and The Kiss Murder are full of explicit, matter-of-fact and often very funny discussions of sex. What reaction has this caused?
MMS: Some say there is not enough sex in them. I was even accused of creating very clean, white, puritanical transvestites. So, the opinion varies. Follow the rest of series; more will come.
DBB: In The Prophet Murders, especially, your protagonist has some harsh things to say about her co-workers' lack of seriousness or intelligence. How do transgender/transvestite/gay readers react to this? Is there ever any pressure to show "solidarity," to say only good things about the girls? Or does that pressure come only from politically correct liberal white males like me?
MMS: The books, themselves are considered as solidarity pieces. And it is a known fact that the transvestites working in Istanbul night life are not the front-runners of intellectuals.
DBB: You never give your protagonist a name, at least not in the two books published so far in English. Why not?
MMS: One of the small games I play by myself. With each and every book of the series, I reveal another part of life of my protagonist.
DBB: Val McDermid called The Kiss Murder "A cappuccino of a book – the froth and fizz on top disguises the dark and bitter brew beneath." I'd like you to talk about that comment, to tell me what you think she means and whether you agree with her.
MMS: I love that!!! And I believe it defines what I meant. Excellent!
DBB: How have the Turkish public and Turkish critics received your novels? Into what other languages has your work been translated?
MMS: I got all the good critics. Or at least my agent didn’t show me the bad ones. The Kiss Murder has been published in French, Spanish, German (2009), Polish, Greek (2009), Portuguese (Brazil).
Thanks indeed. Enjoy life ... Better with my books.
© Peter Rozovsky 2009