Hello, Barbara. Thank you very much for agreeing to give an interview to Detective Magazine. First of all, we would like to get to know you a little better. Can you tell us about yourself?
Hello Detective Magazine. My name is Barbara Nadel, I am British and live just outside London which was where I was born. As a child I lived in a very vibrant part of London known as the East End. For Istanbullus this is probably equivilent to Tarlabasi. It was very diverse and friendly but it could also be dangerous too. When I grew up I studied psychology and worked for many years with people who had committed crimes as a result of their mental health problems. I am married and have one son who is a comic book writer. I started writing myself when I was working in a psychiatric forensic unit here in the UK and so I had met people who had murdered before I took to writing crime fiction.
Why and how did you start writing?
Working in a psychiatric unit opens a person up to all sorts of experiences. Strictly we were supposed to receive emotional support, but as some of you may know, our health service has been underfunded for many years and so there was a limit to what help we could give our patients. People came to us who had committed terrible offences. Sometimes they knew what they had done, but often they didn’t. There was no solution. I wrote after work, to relax. In crime fiction, the good guys always win and there are solutions to everything. My world was the reverse of that. Writing made me feel better, as if I had some sort of control.
How did you come up with the idea of writing a detective series set in Istanbul with a Turkish detective?
Ikmen came about as a result of my frequent travels in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul. I have always loved it and when I started writing, over 20 years ago now, I couldn’t understand why there were so few crime novels set in the city. So I decided to write my own. I also wanted to make a point about the goodness of people. Forensic services, like the police, is full of good people. But it is always the bad ones – those who are brutal and corrupt – that people concentrate on. Ikmen is heroic because he is good, just like so many of my colleagues in psychiatry.
Why Istanbul? Why did you choose Istanbul as the setting for your novel?
Istanbul, like London, is a city you either love or hate. I love it. I love the crazy hustle and bustle of the place, the explosion of sound, sight and sensation. Istanbul has layer upon layer of history, all existing concurrently. I know that Istanbullus are sometimes criticised by other Turkish people for being aloof, for thinking themselves special in some way. But I understand and relate to that. Londoners too are described like this.
Do you think you know enough about Turkey, Turks and Istanbul?
I don’t think you can ever know enough about anything or anyone.
But you do have information, don’t you? How did you get it?
All you can do is perform research so that you try to avoid mistakes. I am always researching and talking to people and I never assume that my knowledge is perfect. I think that’s a mistake.
I know that you have a great admiration and love for Istanbul. Compared to London, Istanbul is an extremely disorderly, uncontrolled, and crowded city. What is it it that made you fall in love with Istanbul? Is it the enchanting mystical atmosphere described by Pierre Loti, or is it something else?
When I first went to Istanbul I didn’t know anything about Pierre Loti. What I did know about was layers of history and culture because I was brought up in an area of London where immigrants had settled for many centuries. My friends at school were mainly Muslims and Hindus – this was the 1970s and so most came from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. But there were still some former immigrants, like my family, and so I automatically feel at home in places where different people have co-existed for a long time. With that comes architectural styles, belief systems and stories. Beyoglu particularly was my kind of place. Like the chaotic part of London from which I come, it was full of life, colour and a certain magic that only happens when a place has been inhabited by different types of people for a very long time. People always leave bits of themselves behind – in their buildings, their food, their myths. This is the essence of a literary school known as Psychogeography whose practitioners include journalists, literary fiction authors and the occultist and comic book writer, Alan Moore.
Which other cities in Turkey have you travelled to besides Istanbul? What impressed you the most in the places you visited?
Other Turkish cities I have been to include, Ankara, İzmir, Antalya, Konya, Kayseri, Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep and Mardin. All of these places have their own particular appeal and flavour. Of course being me I am attracted to their less travelled streets and their histories. Some friends and I once found a tiny ancient house in Gaziantep which was being used as a cafe/bar by a hugely eclectic group of people all involved in the arts. In Urfa I wandered into a mansion with frescos on the walls, an ancient radio on the floor and ornate, if rotting, French furniture. It was as if the occupants had just left. Maybe I am affected by “hüzün”?
In the past, when we used to ask foreigners what they liked the most in Turkey, we used to get standard answers such as shish kebab, baklava and Bosphorus. I am sure that in later years, döner was added to this list. What do you like the most in Turkey, especially when it comes to food and drink?
The thing I like most is walking the Istanbul streets. I do it a lot and I walk until I can walk no more. There’s so much to see, investigate and experience. As a writer the discovery of something with which I am unfamiliar is one of the most exciting things for me. I can spend hours tracking down small mosques, churches and synagogues. I also like hanging out in antique and second hand shops looking at the possessions of people long gone. The photographs sometimes make me sad – images of someone’s long dead grandmother, an ancestor wearing his Ottoman army uniform prior to going to war in Arabia. As for food and drink, I am not a great gourmet. Rather like Ikmen, I like a good Turkish coffee – medium sweet – ayran and, back in the days when I used to drink, raki. I like ice cold almonds, kokorec, fish sandwiches and pickles – because I’m often on the move. I have a very sweet tooth and enjoy every kind of baklava, profiteroles and anything with kaymak.
It is very difficult to find your books translated into Turkish. However, we recently received the good news that a new edition has been published. Will there be new editions of your other books? And why has the new edition been delayed so long?
Foreign rights to British authors books is a vexed issue here. In the past few years our earnings from foreign rights have dropped. This is in part due to a world-wide economic downturn and partly because of Brexit. I cannot, politely, tell you what I think about Brexit and so I won’t! But I think you can guess. However I was very pleased when my series was picked up by Perseus Yayınevi and I believe they are going to publish more than the first book.
How did the series film project come about? Did you have any contribution to the script? When will the series film be ready for release and on which television platform will it be shown?
Over the years I had had many meetings with many TV and film companies about the Ikmen books. It had always come to nothing. Then at the end of 2019 I was called to a meeting in north London with Viacom/Miramax. They wanted to make a TV series and so a contract was signed but then the Covid 19 virus intervened and so the show wasn’t filmed until 2022. I was a consultant on the series but didn’t write the scripts. In the end The Turkish Detective, which is the series title was produced by Viacom, Miramax and Ay Yapım. It will be screened on Paramount + later this year. It stars Haluk Bilginer at Cetin Ikmen and he is excellent.
Did you write Çetin Ikmen novels in Istanbul? Can you tell us about your writing environment and rituals, if any?
My books are written partly in Istanbul and partly in my office here in the UK. Now I am a full-time writer I try to keep to a 9am to 5pm schedule whenever I can. I have heavy family commitments so sometimes I find myself writing at night and at weekends. I don’t have any actual rituals as such, but I do always have my statue of a cobra on my desk.
Your 25th Ikmen detective novel “Double Illusion” will be on the market when this interview is published. You have written 25 Ikmen detective novels in the last 24 years. Your Francis Hancock and Hakim & Arnold detective series were also written during this period. An enviable productivity! How do you manage to write so many novels? Can you tell us the secret of this work?
There’s no real secret to my productivity except for the fact that I find having ideas easy. As a psychologist I find all states of mind fascinating, not just criminal ones.
Besides Çetin Ikmen, you also have Francis Hancock and Hakim & Arnold series. Could you tell us a little about them? Why did you need a different series? What are the differences or similarities between these series in terms of theme?
I began writing the Francis Hancock series just after my father died. He had lived through World War 2 and, as a child, witnessed the carpet bombing of London known as the Blitz. He and his family had many fascinating stories from that time, many of them involving my grandfather who was a horseman. As part of his job, my grandfather looked after horses for a local undertaker and this was the basis for the Hancock stories. The Hakim and Arnold stories concern a private detective agency in the modern East End of London. Lee Arnold is a white ex-police officer and his business partner Mumtaz Hakim is a British Asian woman who has a degree in psychology. Together they solve crimes in the melting pot that is London’s East End.
How do you determine the plot of your novels? How do you create the plot? Do you create a draft and a plan beforehand?
I am famously a non-planner. I have an idea, I know who will be killed, how and why. Then I let Ikmen do his job and I simply document his actions and thought processes. I know that sounds a bit crazy but some of us do work like this. Embodying and talking to our characters. I’ve tried to plan and I admire those who do enormously, but it doesn’t work for me.
England is a country with a very productive tradition in the field of detective literature. It is a fact that all crime writers in the world are influenced by British crime literature. Who are the British crime writers you are influenced by?
I guess the UK crime writer who has influenced me the most is Colin Dexter, who wrote the Inspector Morse series. I loved the books and the TV series and the complexity of Morse as a person. Dexter really made his characters ‘live’ and that was what I wanted to do too.
Which crime fiction tradition do you see yourself as a continuation of? In other words, to which genre of crime fiction can we include your novels? Cosy, hard boiled, whodunit, thriller, noire and so on…?
I really don’t know. My books are listed as ‘police procedural’ but I think they’re more than that. Because of the nature of Ikmen himself and his city, there are more than a few hints of magical realism. Like British magician Derren Brown, however strange and apparently miraculous the events that happen are, they always have a logical explanation in the end – except when they don’t.
How is the interest in Cetin Ikmen novels in the UK? Are British readers interested in your crime novels centred in Istanbul/Turkey? In particular, I would like to know the reaction to your first Çetin Ikmen novel.
More people in the UK are interested in Ikmen and in mysteries set in Turkey than they were when I started. This is I believe because more British people have been to Turkey now and many of them have fallen in love with it.
In Turkey, Agatha Christie is one of the most influential British crime writers among readers and writers. I would like to know what you think about Agatha Christie detective novels.
Agatha Christie novels come from what is known as the ‘Golden Age’ of British crime fiction. I grew up reading her books and love them. But as a writer from a working class background I do find some of the attitudes of the overwhelmingly middle and upper class characters does grate at times.
In Feurbach’s famous quote, he suggests that individuals from different social classes have different perspectives on the same things. With this in mind, it is understandable that Agatha Christie’s writing style and language are specific to the upper class. As a writer with a working-class background, how do you think it has contributed to your perspective on the events and characters in your novels?
Working class writers focus much more on the day to day lives of their characters. Much of that involves just making enough money to pay the rent, trying to keep your job and your integrity – which is often very difficult. That’s why a lot of working class people find themselves involved in crime. Someone makes you an offer you literally cannot refuse. I have never done this myself, but I know people who have and I totally understand them. The prospect of poverty is never far away for most of my characters, just like it is never far away for me. You never forget being hungry, being afraid that your landlord will throw you out on the street or having to sell your only coat in order to be able to feed your children. I have come a long way in my life but I can never allow myself to become too comfortable because poverty is always around the next corner. Cetin Ikmen knows this very well.
There is a current issue about Agatha Christie these days. Some words in some of Agatha Christie’s books are being “updated”. What is your opinion about these corrections, which are also applied to the works of other authors? Do you think these corrections should be made?
This is a hard questions. Much as many of Agatha Christie’s characters may grate on me because of their often racist and classist views, that was how a lot of the ruling classes were then and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. As for making corrections, I’m not sure. I can see why some people might want to do this, but I can also see why others may not. Personally I do find some of the views expressed in a lot of books from previous ages culturally offensive but I also think we need to acknowledge that happened.
What are some of the advantages or difficulties of being a crime writer in the UK? When you write a novel, what processes does it have to go through to be published? Was it an easy process for you to become a writer and to get your books published? Or was it quite difficult and labourious?
There are not a lot of advantages to be fair. Competition is fierce here and the publishing industry is tough. Only in very recent times have working class and ethnically diverse people managed to get published here and even now it is not a level playing field. When I started 20 years ago, I knew nobody in publishing who was like me. I spoke differently, I didn’t know anyone and I couldn’t afford to go to a lot of the events most writers went to. Getting published took me ten years. It was only when I discovered that authors had agents that anyone did anything except mail my first Ikmen book back at me without comment. When I found an agent things changed as I finally had someone on my side who could also speak to publishers and knew their systems. Publishing here remains tough especially with the coming of books by celebrities which sell in numbers people like me can only dream about.
Have you read books by Turkish crime writers? Do you have any favourites among the ones you have read?
I love Ahmet Umit’s A Memento for Istanbul, Mehmet Murad Somer’s Hop-Ciki-Yaya series and Esmahan Aykol’s Kati Hirschel series. And, although not specifically a crime novel, Elif Safak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.
How long will you stay in Turkey?
I’ve just been in Istanbul and hope to come back very soon, maybe before the end of the summer.
Finally, what would you like to say to the readers of Detective Magazine?
As I say to all crime fiction fans, a big ‘thank you’. Without you, authors like me wouldn’t have a job and that means a lot. Also, if you have ambitions to write yourselves, keep going. It’s hard and it’s easy to become disillusioned. But your voices are just as important as the voices of bestseller authors. Literature needs fresh eyes and fresh insights.
 Barbara Nadel uses the word “sadness” here in Turkish.
 “Those who live in a palace and those who live in a hut think differently about the same things.”