The Uncanny Hero Of Celil Oker’s Detective Novels: Istanbul

One of the leading authors of the detective novel genre which was on the rise in Turkey in the 90s is Celil Oker. The author succeeded to create riveting plots and vivid characters in his works based on a solid fiction. However, his real success is his depiction of space and his attention to details. These places come to life with the attention of the detective Remzi Unal who is the author’s spokesperson in the novels.

Today, the detective’s investigation methods have changed in detective stories where action has gained importance and depiction of different places has become inevitable – both as a matter of content and method. Like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett’s Same Spade, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Remzi Unal is a man of action. Today, in almost all over the world, in the works written in the genre of detective novels, the thought and lifestyle of modern society is questioned and the social image of the crime is gaining importance. In the novels of the author, the paths of rich people cross with the poor due to the murders. In these novels, the places that have the function of emphasizing the contrast between these two sides generally appear as mansions, villa-cities, building complexes, slums, bars, casinos, shopping malls, big hotels, luxury offices, medium-sized student houses and neglected work places. Istanbul is the main background.

Cities, Books and Writers
In world literature, it is seen that many big cities inspire novels; moreover these cities are associated with certain authors. Danzig with Günter Grass, Dublin with James Joyce, Vienna with Robert Musil, and Berlin with Alfred Döblin have become a kind of novel cities. This relationship between the novel and the city appears more strongly in the genre of detective novels. Today, many writers aim to expose the dark sides of their society through ’detective literature’. Thanks to Lawrence Block’s detective Matthew Scudder, we have the opportunity to get to know New York; and with Jeremiah Healy’s detective John Cuddy, we can see these aspects of Boston. We get acquainted with the streets of Athens with Haritos, the detective type created by the Istanbul-born Greek writer Petros Markaris, and with Venice with Donna Leon’s detective Commissioner Brunetti.

The presence of Istanbul in Oker’s novels prepared the ground for reflecting these spaces in a more realistic, sensitive and critical way: “I care very much about the issue of beating the pavement in Istanbul. The fact that there is a detective traveling around Istanbul and it is read by foreign readers is one of the things I enjoy most. It is very important for me to create a character who travels in a unique city like Istanbul. My hero usually wanders the places where I live. That’s why I don’t have to do any special research in those places. We also have a technology that makes it easier for us to do research and look around. In the internet, we can find and depict the street where the adventure takes place. But if there is a place I don’t know, I definitely go there.”

Celil Oker introduces the people of Istanbul in his novels. His works include taxi drivers, simit( Turkish bagel) sellers, national lottery sellers, mobile bookstores, kebab shops, parking stewards, snatchers, wanders, real estate agents, kokorec sellers, sellers of roasted chestnuts.

Celil Oker’s Istanbul
The most distinctive feature of Celil Oker’s works is undoubtedly that these works, with their districts and streets, serve as a lively Istanbul guide. These novels are the stories of Istanbul as well as the stories of crime and changing social life. Detective Remzi Unal, who knows Istanbul and the people of Istanbul very well; taxi drivers, bagel sellers, lottery ticket sellers, mobile bookstores, kebab restaurants, parking stewards, snatchers, wanders, real estate agents, kokoreç (charcoal grilled seasoned mutton intestines) and chestnuts sellers, mobile meatball sellers, highways, pharmacies, restaurants, kiosks, small boutiques, boats, shopping malls, office buildings, bars, historical buildings, new buildings, slums, luxury villas, cinemas, theaters, in other words Istanbul, one of the oldest metropolises of the world, to us with its century-specific characteristics. He tells the ancient traces of the people of Istanbul and the city, as well as the people of small towns and the reflections of their culture in the city.While describing Istanbul in his works, the author does not limit his aim to praising the metropolis; he tries to reflect the city where he lives in a realistic way. Corruption in city life has turned human relations into interests. Corruption in the city life has turned human relations into a relationship of interest. In these works, we can see how the detective novel is nourished by the sociological data. The following words that the author makes the detective say emphasize that human quality is also an element determining the aesthetics of the city: “In a city where few things to love remained, I would knock on the doors of people who wouldn’t be happy to see me and ask questions they would not like. Two out of three answers would be a lie. If they were correct, they would be distorted. When I subtract the wrong ones from the right answers, no one would like the result. Neither do I…” One of the elements that make Remzi Unal pessimistic is the point where human relations come. Celil Oker argues that Istanbul, where the rate of planned murder based on interests has risen rapidly, has begun to settle in a parallel position with other metropolitan cities of the world.

Upstaging Corpse
Celil Oker tries to show the dark side of Istanbul, which contains the ugliness of the metropolitan city as well as the relaxing physical beauties. Pickpockets, street children using drugs, burning traffic problems, environmental pollution, and unplanned urbanization damaging the historical fabric are the issues that come into view of Remzi Unal, who spends most of his time outside. In Upstaging Corpse, he realistically tells the details within his view in this district of Istanbul, while he goes to Pandora Bookstore in Beyoglu to meet Seyda Tapan.  The traffic problem and neglected roads of the metropolitan city sometimes infuriate Remzi Unal who always has to go to a place with his car. In The Last Corpse, Remzi Unal made an agreement with Muazzez Guler to find her dealer Sinan who did not pay the debts and he was worried as he embarks on a new adventure. He would confront again “Bad traffic, paved roads with pits, streets full of junctions where there is uncertainty about who will pass first”.

The shopping centers that are gradually expanding their presence among the details specific to Istanbul, new and characterless buildings that appear alongside few old and elaborate architectural structures also disturb Remzi Unal. The author tries to show the difference between the old and the new Istanbul, claiming that Istanbul is becoming more and more unappealing in terms of architecture. In Don’t Shoot Istanbul, the detective who walks on Piyalepasa Boulevard in Istanbul has his eye on the surrounding structures: “On our left, there was cemetery and on our right the architectural examples that made Istanbul ugly were flowing. A little later, an old mosque would come. Actually, I liked it.”

Living Places Of Istanbul Reflected To The Novels
Celil Oker also mentions Istanbul’s shopping centers, cinemas, cafes and restaurants in his novels. Profilo and Carousel Shopping Centers and cinemas, Papermoon restaurant in Akmerkez, Reasürans Bazaar, Cafe Marmara are the favorite places of Istanbul where Celil Oker’s novel characters, especially Remzi Unal occasionally visit.

Remzi Unal pursues people because of his work; he sometimes follows them secretly and sometimes visits them. He walks into their homes and businesses unannounced to get to know people and catch clues. Although the detective knows Istanbul well enough to say “Istanbul was a small city, you were walking around and coming to the same place”, the roads sometimes take him to places he doesn’t know. These travels give Remzi Unal the opportunity to see the city as a whole, to evaluate it and to notice the changes. The detective’s mood constantly changes according to these places besides his internal clock.

Like some amateur writers who just provide navigation information, Celil Oker does not look at Istanbul with a superficial attention. The author also does not focus on the fabric of Istanbul’s rich history in his fictions. In addition, he is respectful to the places of the past that give identity to the city where he lives and the real Istanbulites who grow with the aesthetics and good manners of these places. As a result of rapid urbanization, the erosion in the city in all respects disturbs the detective who has an improved aesthetic sensitivity. In his latest novel Don’t Shoot Istanbul that takes place in the districts of Beyoglu, Taksim, Ortakoy, Mecidiyekoy and Kasımpasa, it makes sense that he consciously uses the street names such as Imam Adnan Street, Mevlut Pehlivan Street, Muallim Naci Street and Bestekar Sevki Bey Street.which symbolizes the cultural heritage of the city.

Image Of The Cities
In the detective novels that choose Istanbul as the place, the sounds specific to this city also help the formation of a city image. Remzi Unal, on the other hand, loves Istanbul all the way as a person living in this city. Unal, who blows out the cigarette smoke through the open window, likes the sounds coming from outside, some of which he understands, which seemed like corresponding to his smoke. For the detective who perceives Istanbul as a whole of familiar voices and feels close to it, Istanbul is still a beautiful city worth living, despite its uncanniness. Just as the spaces that symbolize Istanbul reveal the identity of the city and the society that make up the city, the spaces specific to individuals which are a projection of the chaos in the city tell the story of the people who somehow adapted to the rhythm of the city, separated and isolated. The well-maintained offices of businessmen, the tastefully furnished homes of lonely women, the secure building complexes with the inhabitants who isolate themselves from the environment, and the modest shanty rooms watching Istanbul from the same side, student houses and the depiction of such spaces are also important as sociological data reflecting the time besides their literary functions.

The reader of any literary genre is not as caring and careful as a detective novel reader for the spaces and details that hide clues. The author, who is aware of this, managed to keep the curiosity of the reader alive by using the opportunities provided by the self-centered narrative and shared his knowledge and experience with them. Taking into account the foreign readers, the author’s efforts to create an Istanbul image with the portrayal of the places go beyond the literary limits, become sociological ideas and convey the author’s worldview. With Remzi Unal, Oker tells the story of a lonely man who wavers in the chaos of modern urban life and drives him into adventures that reflect the human relationships where money begins to dominate instead of love. In detective fiction, ‘pure knowledge’ can never replace ‘pure excitement’. Travelling the streets of Istanbul with Celil Oker’s detective Remzi Unal, the reader can enjoy the places he knows without giving up his sense of excitement and discover new places.


Who Is Celil Oker?
Celil Oker, a veteran writer of detective fiction, was born in Kayseri in 1952. He finished the Tarsus American College. After he graduated from the Department of English Language and Literature at Bogazici University, he worked as translator, journalist and copywriter. He worked as a lecturer at Bilgi University’s Faculty of Communication in the department of Advertising. He started writing career in 1999 with his novel titled Naked Corpse. He won the first prize in the Kaktüs Kahvesi Detective Novel Competition for his novel The Corpse with Soccer Cleats which was published the same year.

Unreliable Lover: Istanbul
Istanbul, which has all the charm of modern cities, is an uncanny area like other metropolises of the world. Remzi Unal, the Istanbulite detective of the author, is aware of the dangers of city life driving people into the corner, although he is a fan of Istanbul. In Celil Oker’s novels, Istanbul is more than a familiar place where we tour; it is an unreliable lover and a main figure that cooperates with criminals where even the physical beauties are corrupted as a result of social changes.

Detective Remzi Unal
Oker also created Remzi Unal, who would be one of the unforgettable detective types of detective fiction. Remzi Unal introduces himself in almost every novel with these sentences: “Remzi Unal… This former Air Force pilot, fired from THY, who cannot continue working even in the eighth-class charter companies that no respectful ‘frequentflyer’ has ever heard of, ex-captain who is unable to decently land even MS Flight Simulator’s Cessna, ex-captain, a new private detective Remzi Unal…”

Traces Of Anatolia
Celil Oker uses the neighborhoods of Istanbul in his novels by emphasizing the elements that give identity to these districts. The slums built alongside the modern and well-established districts of Istanbul have become an element that complements this city. The fact that Istanbul is a city which has the city culture and the town culture side by side as a result of the immigration from Anatolia is reflected in Oker’s detective novels both with the side characters coming from Anatolia and the places.

By: Ayşe Ulusoy Tunçel

*This article was  published in the  July– August issue of Marmara Life. 

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