Friday, June 7, 2013

FFB: When I Grow Rich - Joan Fleming

The Turkey described in Joan Fleming's award winning When I Grow Rich (1962) is not meant to be a temptation to tourists. This is not picture postcard pretty Istanbul.  It's dirty, fetid, and decrepit city she describes. If we are to believe Fleming the population is made up of mostly self-interested market sellers, rude and foul speaking taxi drivers, outright thieves, and a crowd of bloodthirsty denizens who enjoy the occasional public hanging. Though we are in the 1960s it still feels like the Turkey of centuries gone by. Yet there are glimmers of beauty amid the ugliness. The bibliophile protagonist Nuri Izkirlak who goes by the formal moniker Nuri bey, and his mismatched partner in adventure the teenager Jenny Bolton are the part of that beauty and the true saving grace of the book.

Nuri bey is a philosopher in love with books.  He has few friends and spends nearly all of his time in his home which is more of a library dedicated to the great thinkers of the East and West.  He occasionally visits the home of Madame Miasma, a former member of the old Sultan's seraglio and not one of the pretty ones. At the start of the book we find Nuri bey being asked a favor.  Her female companion Valance has recently died in a freak accident when she fell from a balcony into the sea and Madame is now short handed in the servant department.  She wants Nuri bey to deliver an attache case to a young man waiting at the airport.  He agrees without hesitation and unknowingly enters the Turkish criminal underworld.

The favor seems like the simplest of tasks but of course complications arise. Tony, Madame's courier, is travelling with Jenny Bolton, a ditzy Britisher only 19 who alternates between acting much younger and then much older than her chronological age. When the police show up at the airport Tony flees just as he is about to meet Nuri bey and somehow Jenny ends up with the case. She convinces Nuri bey to help her elude the police and he takes her to his apartment where he tries to figure out what to do now that he has failed Madame Miasma. Soon the story becomes a cat and mouse game between Jenny and Nuri bey on one team, and Madame Miasma and her eunuch henchman Hadjii on the other, as they all try to recover the case and get it back to Tony who seems to have vanished completely.

Madame Miasma at first appears to be an eccentric old woman but she develops into one of the most sinister and villainous characters of the book. Selfish, vengeful, spiteful, and cruel Miasma thinks of herself first and foremost and will stop at nothing to get her case and its mysterious contents back.  Likewise, Jenny initially introduced to the reader as an airhead turns out to be one smart cookie who can hold her own against the malevolent ex-harem girl and her unctuous not to be trusted servant.  But Miasma is wily and manipulative and can turn on the charm when she needs to.  There will be several unfortunate traps that both Jenny and Nuri bey fall into before the Hitchcockian plot comes to its unexpected conclusion.

Though on the surface When I Grow Rich may seem to be yet another pursuit thriller set in an exotic locale Fleming is interested in a lot more than action and crime. The book discusses the still pertinent topic of recreational drug abuse and its insidious effects. Drug trafficking and smuggling play a big part in the plot and Fleming does not waste words criticizing a hedonistic lifestyle. She makes clear also her views on the potential for drug smuggling to create global havoc. But more subtly, and in the end rather powerfully, she is telling a story of obsession and misplaced devotion. Nuri bey comes to realize what a waste his life has been among his books. He loses a great deal over the course of the novel, both physically and emotionally, but that loss leads to a epiphany that changes him for the better. In contrast we get the constant longings of Miasma for riches and her long faded youth and Hadjii's perverted though hidden love for his employer. And there are Jenny's puzzled thoughts of how two people can thirst so wildly for money when they are both so close to the grave.

Fleming won the Gold Dagger from the Crime Writers' Association for When I Grow Rich and would win it again for the book she seems to be best known for Young Man, I Think You're Dying (1970).  Several of her books have been reprinted as eBooks by The Murder Room, Orion's imprint devoted to reviving out-of-print crime writers' work. Some of the titles are also available in paperback editions.  Joan Fleming is too much overlooked when crime writers of the past are discussed and much of her large body of work still remains out of print. But luckily nearly every title she wrote is available in the used book market in very affordable paperback editions, both from US and UK publishers.


  1. Yes, this one is a good book, in my opinion. It's amazing that someone who won two Gold Daggers should now be so little remembered, so thanks for the reminder.

    1. I'm glad I started with one of her better efforts, Martin. Based on a website that reviews nearly every one of her book in a very detailed and intriguing article she seems to be one of those "hit or miss" writers along the lines of Gladys Mitchell. But I braved the Fleming waters and came out both refreshed and impressed. I picked a good one to start with obviously. I'm planning on reading and reviewing several more ofher books.

      BTW - Nuri bey reappears in another book which I forgot to mention in my review. I'm looking for a copy of that one now. It's called Nothing Is the Number When You Die and came three years after the book reviewed above. He is her only series character -- if two books can be considered a series.

  2. My "To Read" pile grows larger every time I click on this blog.