Book review: The Istanbul Puzzle by Laurence O’Bryan

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You don’t need to have visited the ancient and mysterious city of Istanbul to soak up the terrific atmosphere in Laurence O’Bryan’s superb debut novel.

But if you HAVE walked through the amazing light, heat and bustling busyness of one of the world’s most culturally diverse centres, or toured its wealth of historic buildings, then you’ll get a double kick out of this cerebral, action-packed conspiracy thriller.

The beauty, power and history of Istanbul – the cosmopolitan city where East meets West and the power base of the old Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires – come to life in a fast-moving and yet learned tale of murder, plague, explosive secrets and long-lost treasure.

There are all the enigmatic twists and turns of a Dan Brown best-seller but here we have a plot that is less frenetic and more credible, two very human lead characters and enough historical facts to fill a separate book.

O’Bryan is steeped in the history and unique character of Istanbul and takes his readers on a ‘day tour’ of the old city in a bonus chapter at the end of his book.

Since his doctor wife was killed while serving with the Territorial Army in Afghanistan, Sean Ryan has become ‘a hollow human robot with a ghost haunting it.’

He throws all his energies into the Institute of Applied Research in Oxford, an organisation dedicated to new technology which he co-founded and which is currently focusing on digital images of mosaics in Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sophia museum.

When he is informed that his colleague and friend Alek Zegliwski has been savagely beheaded during his work at the sacred and culturally sensitive archaeological site, Sean flies out to Istanbul to identify the body.

There he teams up with British diplomat Isabel Sharp, a shrewd operator but not, as she points out to Sean, ‘James bloody Bond,’ and the two set out on a dangerous mission to discover the reason why Alek was murdered.

At his hotel, Sean is handed an envelope of photographs belonging to Alek and is soon made brutally aware that someone wants him dead too.

Meanwhile, London and other European cities are trying to handle what appear to be well co-ordinated riots after police raids on mosques, and it looks increasingly as if Alek’s death was linked to new threats of Armageddon.

As he begins to unravel the mystery of the mosaics in the photographs and inch closer to snaring Alek’s assassin, Sean is haunted by his friend’s last words to him that ‘the Devil is caged under Hagia Sophia. Let’s hope I don’t disturb him?’

And evil really does seem to be at work when a lethal virus is unleashed on the city and panic spreads fast. Time is running out for Sean and Isabel, they must go underground, in more ways than one, to catch the killer before it’s too late...

The Istanbul Puzzle is an impressive debut; well written, beautifully descriptive, and with a smart dialogue and a compelling air of menace throughout, it has plot that is both fascinatingly addictive and frighteningly feasible.

It is also the first of what promises to be an exciting new series, so log onto www.lpobryan.wordpress.com if you want early details of our daring duo’s next adventure in The Jerusalem Puzzle.

(Avon, paperback, £6.99)