Wednesday, January 28, 2009

An interview with Mehmet Murat Somer

Imagine a crime series written by a management consultant trained as an engineer. Odds are you'll conjure up something quite different from Mehmet Murat Somer's Turkish Delight mysteries (published as the Hop-Çiki-Yaya series in the United Kingdom).

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.
(Read Euro Crime's May 2008 interview with Mehmet Murat Somer here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this interview Peter - I loved The Prophet Murders and it's a good reminder to get my hands on the new book.

January 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Kiss Murder was actually the first in the series that Somer wrote, though The Prophet Murders was published first, both in the U.K. and Turkey, oddly enough. What the situation is in Australia, I don't know. But once you've read TKM, I'd interested in hearing what you think of the darker aspect of both books. I think each handles this aspect in its own way, and it's an aspect that few if any reviewers or blurbsters other than Val McDermid have noticed.

January 28, 2009  
Blogger Ali Karim said...

Hy Great peice - Just got KISS MURDERS myself, I love unusual stuff -


January 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Crime fiction does not get more unusual than this. Val McDermid's comment was dead-on: there's a darkness beneath the froth. But the froth is pretty funny and perceptive. I think back to some of the musical references in The Prophet Murders, for example. Somer must be the funniest management consultant writing crime fiction today.

January 28, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree about Val's comments - I think you could apply it to The Prophet Murders anyway - I must get hold of Kiss Murders - I must get hold of Kiss Murders :)

January 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To my mind, the darker aspects of The Prophet Murders lay in a bit of twisted sexuality on the part of one of the villains, and also in what I recall as scene of appalling physical treatment of one of the characters.

In The Kiss Murder, the darkness inheres a bit more in the touch of fatalism about villainy and hyporcrisy in high places. It's a bit more in the atmosphere than in the action, I think. I don't know the source of Val McDermid's comment, but if it came from a full review rather than just a blurb, I'd be interested in reading more of what she had to say.

January 28, 2009  
Blogger seana graham said...

Quite an interesting interview. It bumps M. M. Somers' work up the the list for me.

January 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. Yep, MMS writes fizz with a bit of bite.

He's touring the U.S. now. I know he has an appearance in Houston and, I believe, one in Salt Lake City as well. You should check to see if he's headed your way. I told his editor that Penguin ought to promote his work as transvestite noir. It's not that reviewers' description of the froth are inaccurate, but they don't tell the whole story of these interesting books.

January 28, 2009  
Blogger seana graham said...

Well, at the very least I can put a shelftalker on his books tomorrow saying 'tranvestite noir', which in Santa Cruz, can only help sales.

January 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I sort of figure that if Penguin is promoting him heavily and sending him around the country, Northern California would make a good destination, whether or not bookstore bill his work as transvestite noir or not.

This current book is the first of his novels to be published in the U.S., and it's only been out a couple of weeks, if that. Would books released in the U.S. necessarily be released simultaneously all over the country?

January 29, 2009  

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