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Part 2: Mayhem and Mystery on the High Seas

In Part 1 of Mayhem and Mystery on the High Seas Victoria Brooks experienced Naples á la James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities: “Here you are still cheated, jostled, burgled and generally intimidated by the inhabitants as you were at, say, Calais in your early teens. It is as if, as you arrive, the whole town licks its lips and says, ‘Here he comes …”

Back on board ship Victoria is put in her place for attempting to bribe Americo, the aging ship’s Neapolitan maitre d’, and is bored to death by a newly nupted homosexual couples’ constant chatter.

Dear friends, if you have forgotten the characters, or haven’t yet read that story click here: Part 1: Mayhem and Mystery on the High Seas

Part 2: Mayhem and Mystery on the High Seas
By Victoria Brooks

Continuing our sea sojourn, and my pleasant task of pinning mystery writers to places, the cruise ship docks just outside Istanbul.

In Istanbul’s oldest district, Sultanahmet I gaze over the sienna tiles and corrugated tin roofs towards the blue Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. My panorama is a spiked silver six-pack of phallic minarets, the Blue Mosque; and a luscious pink dome, Haghia Sophia (Ayasofya) whose creator designed the dome to appear strung from a star. I wonder why Ian Fleming didn’t include this exotic metropolis on his list of thrilling cities in his travelogue of the same name published in 1963, but no matter, Istanbul, that gorgeous relic has been the setting for detective novels and thrillers aplenty: Classic mystery writers John Buchan, Eric Ambler, and, much more recently in a detective series by Barbara Nadel.

My thoughts are scattered by a flurry of action on a near rooftop. Two crows are disseminating a seagull carcass, their beaks precise. Constantinople’s crow is shawled in grey, a beady eyed hunchback in a cape. At that moment our Turk waiter wraps a hand woven pashima around my shoulders to keep away the brace of the sea air. He introduces himself, “my friends call me Paco,” and explains that he is pet-named that because he plays the guitar. His Turkish name is, to me, unpronounceable, and the reason for his nickname beyond me. I smile in a dervish of cultural confusion.

Arabesk, a novel by the alive and kicking mystery writer Barbara Nadel, lies open on our table. I purchased it at a used bookstore, but it is not vintage sixties, like the deceased Fleming’s work. The light and the view from the three-star Seven Hills Hotel where we sit are delicious, like the white goat cheese that crumbles in my fingers when I take a bite. We can look across too, to the posh Four Season’s hotel’s courtyard, until a few years ago a rat infested prison where the young American who wrote Midnight Express languished in medievalesque squalor before dramatically escaping a hashish trafficking sentence.

Yesterday evening, Robert and I roamed Istanbul’s night and shopping promenade, Beyoglu like strays, hot to find Beşinci Kat, a bar famed for its view and for its owner, a female Turkish film star whose name I can’t recall. Robert and I nosed furtively down back streets littered with garbage and with men, daggers agleam in the dull electric light. Just as Robert pulled me closer and said in a low tone, “Baby, this is crazy. We’ll get ourselves robbed, if not killed,” there it was, Beşinci Kat.

Inside the owner/movie star posed against a red lacquered column, dark-haired and voluptuous, like all Turkish sirens. Pleased with our detective work we made for the bar and ordered two Flemingesque martinis (shaken, not stirred). The youthful bartender’s jeans and shirt were as tight and bulging as the star’s low slung lycra gown. He shook the martinis, and then crouched behind the expanse of bar. I craned my neck to see what he was up to. He was tasting the patron’s drinks, ours too. A sip, then a gulp, then on to the next.

Beşinci Kat is located in an alley secreted off crowded Istikal Caldissi. During Ottoman times that same promenade was the elegant Grand Rue de Pera. It is also the locale where Nadel’s fictional and cultured Inspector Suleyman’s victims have been poisoned; but there is no smell of bitter almonds that evening, just the odor of sweat overlaid by the smell of rotisserie lamb from the open takeaways that squeeze between the glassy Beneton-style stores with their pallid Western mannequins.

The mystery writer’s Turkish detective is impatient, rude and surly. He swears like a thug. I peruse some pages and to my delight both Suleyman and I learn about the world of Arabesk, the mournful, melodramatic gypsy music from Suleyman’s mentor, Inspector Ikman. “Miserable, sentimentalized excrement!” he comments in his morose manner. Last night in the crush of Istikal Caldissi I listened to the street sounds. Behind the sound of the tiny trolleys that clattered by and between the falsetto wails of a transvestite begging his lover to come back I heard a wild cadence of Turkish gypsy music emanating from a tourist shop.

Robert thinks the Turks, especially the obviously jobless males who loiter in the leafy shadows of Istanbul’s attractive streets, sullen. He resents their heavy-lidded sexual appraisal of me as we wander by. I hardly dare to look at the men and avoid eye contact, but can see into the timbre of their sad lives through the sounds that are Istanbul: the lazy aggressive click of dice, the short trombone bursts of the freighter’s horn, the long wail of the Muezzins combust in this city that straddles both Europe and Asia. It is a vibe specific to the eye of the beholder. In Greenmantle, John Buchan’s romantic thriller written in 1941, he describes his dashed expectations of Istanbul: “… the first sight was a mighty disappointment…” and “I saw what I took to be mosques and minarets, and they were as impressive as factory chimneys.”

Robert and I have yet to tour the famed Topkapi museum, though before leaving Vancouver we watched the eponymous film set there, a caper based on Eric Ambler’s mystery novel The Light of Day. The fictitious heist of the Topkapi jewels stars Melina Mercouri. We have toured the pink-domed Haghia Sophia (Divine Wisdom) Mosque, built by emperor Justinian (A.D.527-565) and once a cathedral. Though the Byzantine dome is a beauty to behold from our rooftop perch we do agree with Mark Twain’s sentiment, “… the rustiest old barn in heathendom.” It is a small disappointment in the scheme of things.

We must return to our aged cruise ship and our fellow passengers, yet I am enlightened by our short visit. Nader’s mystery novel paints her setting well: the stink and the startling beauty of Istanbul, its scent of spices and twisted alleys peopled with sad-eyed men. To me, Istanbul seems a city with a heart beat that embraces both heaven with its domes and minarets, and earth, with its shifty touts, heartbroken transvestites and sullen jobless men. The architecture is a knockout, yet the pollution brutal. The sullen looks are upsetting, but other sweetnesses make up for that: Last evening we happened on a tiny local bar in Sultanahmet named “Cheers” where a young Turkish woman and her boyfriend, the proprietor, befriend us, play gypsy music for us, dance with us, and refuse to let us pay our bill.

If I can, I will return. The jewels of Topkapi are waiting. Like the old heart of Sultanahmet and the blue curves of the Bosporous they will still be there. Unless, of course, someone really steals them.

Back on the cruise ship we sail between the Turkish mainland and Greece. Our fellow passengers stride up and down the promenade deck, hands behind their backs. They are mostly elderly veteran cruisers and very British. Though our dinner companions, the honeymooning Cliff and Don are not on deck I notice a number of homosexual couples, they are younger than the cruising retirees, they are middle aged. Somerset Maugham, who was bisexual, would be quite at home.

A silver haired gentleman regales us with an incident set in the myopic green of the Greek islands we pass. “It was a few year ago, “he offers, “I was wintering in the region, sailing the Marmara Sea and Greek islands on my yacht. He hesitates, his memories faded, “The harbormaster of one of the islands proved difficult. If there was even a miniscule leak of diesel from a yacht’s engine he’d fine the captain. The yachts stopped coming. Soon enough the man was murdered by the locals, shot 14 times in the back. Then the yacht trade returned. Of course, you know, the police reported it as a suicide.”

At dinner, I cut Americo the ship’s maitre d’ as he swaggers by. One elbow cocked, his fist furled against the chest of his epauletted dinner jacket, short of manners, slick and surly and miniscule of stature, he barks at waiters and struts. He stares coldly at me. If the sophisticated Fleming was beside me I know he would raise a mocking eyebrow.

When we reach our assigned dinner table I see we have been joined by a new couple. “…You may have surmised I’m an English Jew,” is his introduction along with his name. Joe is small, bald and dressed in bow tie and powder blue jacket. His wife, bony chest dusted in iridescent powder, bends low over me, “I’d like to share your three men,” Nina says in my ear and I wonder if she realizes two of the men at the table are gay. She must. Cliff and Don’s Liberace bejeweled clasped hands sparkle harder than hers. The homosexual couple sport matching Scottish highland dress this evening (maybe in honor of Robert, my Scot). Under the table I imagine two sets of hairy knees rubbing.

Across from Robert and I, our dinner companions warble to each other. Nina staged musicals in the thirties. Jon is a retired salon owner who dressed the hair of actresses and stage people that I’ve not heard of. He is brimming with stage gossip. Our dinner mates prefer their theatre talk to ours. Robert’s tales of our Istanbul adventures are of no interest to them. I tempt conversation with tidbits about authors Fleming and Buchan to no avail. My attempt to win them over with a story about my encounter with Sir Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, an island that we would pass, is interrupted with a “Who is he? That’s nothing. You’ll be interested in this…” and on they’d go. Our gay dinner companions and the Cockney couple take up a banter of musical trivia, music hall jokes and croon old tunes to each other. Robert and I take our leave before dessert. Each dinner that follows we arrive late and too often to Cliff, his mouth pursed in annoyance – not only of us but of the staff too. He is a petulant child abusing the Spanish waiter for bringing the wrong bottle of wine, or taking too long with the main course. On our inaugural evening he reports the waiter to our Italian dine boss, Americo for “not smiling, not being cheerful enough.” It is a sad parody of “Faulty Towers.” Garcia, our hard working waiter was born with a down-turned mouth.

We navigate the Suez Canal, pass its lonely vistas, and begin a two-day traverse of the Red Sea. Sun lounges are scarce and by 8:00 a.m. they are taken. The passengers, including ourselves, vie for deckchairs ruthlessly, dragging them to a preference of sun or shade; placing books, towels, even valuables on the chaises lounge, then laze away the day on deck. The century mark heat is a soporific and the Red Sea’s glassy appearance is intoxicating like I imagine an opium-induced dream would be. Time slides and disappears into itself like the ship’s wake into the sea. When I peer into the translucent turquoise that is displaced by the craft, it takes on the frothy innocence of a Jacuzzi bath. I peruse my guidebook and find differently. An aggressive species of hammerhead shark caused much of the fatalities in Egypt’s largest maritime disaster. In 1991 a ferry hit a reef close to shore near Jeddah and 480 of the 650 passengers perished. I scan the sea and see nothing.

At dinner our companions whisper to each other how rude Robert and I are for arriving late. Nina says to me as I sit, “We thought you weren’t coming.”

I apologize, but make no specific excuses. I try to make it up by telling them about the aggressive breed of hammerheads and the ferry accident. We passed Jeddah at sunset. The sea is still traced with crimson.

Jon clicks his tongue and says to Robert, “Sharks aren’t naughty, not where humans are concerned,” and finishes with, “You should educate your girlfriend.” Then they turn back to their cliquish chatter.

The food is delicious. The ship slides through the night.

Our second day at sea, the passengers lie about the decks snoozing and reading. The water is like glass. At high noon we hear an announcement. It is the captain. “Sharks off the port,” he announces, and those of us who can hear him dash to the side rails. There at least 50 sharks on the leeward side. They are still, floating, their massive bodies just below the surface and illuminated by the bright sun. A hammerhead turns his massive head toward the ship and flicks his tail. He is over twelve feet long, the width of his snout must measure four feet or more. There are Tiger sharks and spotted Reef sharks too. All measure over eight feet. The water is so clear I can see their eyes, menacing. I imagine eye contact. Their jaws are wide gashes. Every detail of their bulk is clear: tails, fins, scars, imperfections, remoras clinging, and it is as if they are underneath a magnifying glass. They hang out in their Red Sea alley like a gang of lazy, territorial thugs. They don’t swim, but float out of the way courtesy of the current caused by the ship. We pass them and then we race to the windward side of the deck. There are at least 50 more of the great predators. It is a beautiful, yet fearful sight.

Then we are through the thick triangle of giants, and, I think of those classic thriller writers Ian Fleming and Eric Ambler and even Somerset Maugham, whose stories and lives fascinate me, but few others. What difference from Robert and I having no interest in old musicals? To each his own.

But the sharks are real – and the disturbing, brilliant vision would be savored by anyone who saw it. No, it could not be forgotten. Ever. By anyone, by anyone fortunate enough to see it. I look around. No Jon and Nina in sight. (I remember they had made a date with friends to play a singing game of musical chairs in the library.) We pass Cliff and Don in those hens’ teeth chaise lounges, snoring in tandem, flesh spilling in waves over their miniscule matching swim suits. “Yes,” I say, to Robert, with verve in my voice. “Our dinner companions will listen to us now.”

When You Go:
The cruise ship in the story is retired and the names of the characters, but not the story, fictitious. If you choose to cruise try SeaDream Yacht Club whose maitre d’ Don and the entire staff will not only charm you but treat you like royalty.

Book at www.seadreamyachtclub.com