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10 July 2024

The Turkish Detective is both familiar and delightfully other

This series based on Barbara Nadel’s bestselling novels is really rather good summer viewing.

By Rachel Cooke

The Turkish Detective, a series based on Barbara Nadel’s bestselling novels, is both familiar and delightfully other. Set in Istanbul, it brings the heady scent of cumin, cardamom, fresh mint and tobacco deep into your sitting room, leaving you itchy for travel or (budgets being as they are) perhaps a visit to your local ocakbasi. At home, our hero, the outwardly shambolic Inspector Cetin Ikmen (Haluk Bilginer) eats – not a lonely sandwich straight out of a chiller cabinet, but delicious home-cooked food with his lovely wife and children. But even down at the nick, which is overrun with cats, you’ll find no vending machine; little glasses of sweet tea are delivered to suspects personally by the coppers on tiny trays. The traffic is chaos. Religion is all around. Manners are highly important, but also complicated: a language it takes a whole lifetime to learn.

So, that’s the other. In other ways, though, this is a straightforward police procedural. If Ikmen is old school, reluctant to do things by the book, he’s also wily and knowing – and you’ll recognise his team, too. Ayse (Yasemin Kay Allen) is there to roll her eyes at sexist men, of which there are plenty in Istanbul; Tarik (Erol Afsin) is a nerd who can break into any phone, hack any computer; and Suleyman (Ethan Kai) is a fish-out-of-water newbie freshly landed from London, a former Met officer who cannot get the measure of Turkish policing, which seems to him haphazard and highly irregular.

Then there are the criminals and various other minor characters: international drug dealers and flashy entrepreneurs who belong wholly to the new Turkey; lonely immigrants from Syria and girls desperate to escape controlling fathers. You’ll feel right at home if you’re fan of slightly old-fashioned TV detective shows. What I mean, I suppose, is that it’s a lot better than Death in Paradise, but definitely not up there with, say, Happy Valley.

But still, I’m enjoying it. The locations are fantastic: teeming markets and narrow back streets; intricate, slanting Ottoman houses; a police speedboat zooming up the Bosphorus to a luxe hotel. It’s a feast for the eyes, or at any rate, a holiday brochure (of sorts – it does come with dead bodies). Ben Schiffer’s script is surprisingly droll: sometimes clichéd, but mostly attentive to the way people speak. Above all, it’s worth watching for Bilginer, who puts in a five-star performance in a three-star show, and by doing so keeps you with it. You might remember him as Mehmet Osman in EastEnders in the Eighties, but that was a long time ago. He’s a seriously brilliant actor, the recipient of an Emmy for his role in the Turkish crime drama Şahsiyet, and he makes Ikmen as vivid and alive as a Dickens character (a writer the inspector happens to love).

You’ll want to know about the plot. It’s standard stuff. A young woman has been murdered, and her family and private life point to both coercion (she had a secret boyfriend) and skulduggery (her fiancé is one of Turkey’s richest men). A second strand has to do with Suleyman, and a girl he used to love, the reason for his transfer. But the complexities of Turkish society, particularly the tensions between secularism and faith, make it richer and more interesting than all this would be if we were in Basingstoke.

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I guess it is strange that the characters, who are Turkish, sometimes (though not always) talk in English even when Suleyman isn’t around. But I guess that’s the price you pay with such an American-Canadian production. Exotic equals good and novel; foreign equals scary; subtitles equal thoroughly exhausting. And it’s just about the only bum note. When Ikmen picked up Suleyman from the airport in the first episode only to disappear mid-journey – “Just one moment, please,” he said smoothly, hopping out of his dustbin of a car – I thought of all the times the same thing happened to me on assignment in far-off places. (Abandonment!) His passenger, frustrated if not alarmed, eventually found him lightly bartering over a scarf for his wife’s birthday: a very exact and satisfying little scene. The Turkish Detective may not be madly edgy or innovative, but it’s really rather good summer viewing – and it also takes full credit for the kofta I plan to make this evening.

The Turkish Detective 
BBC iPlayer

[See also: A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder review: Deliciously old-fashioned TV]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change