Opening the electric curtains in my room to reveal the sun rising over the Bosphorus, Istanbul’s great waterway, I pondered on this technological innovation. What a great murder weapon electric curtains would make. Prompted by the refurbishment of Pera Palace Hotel, Agatha Christie’s Turkish home from home, I had come to Istanbul to breathe in the essence of mystery, and to stir the inner detective.
It was here that the Queen of Crime wrote Murder on the Orient Express – in room 411 – and where she stayed frequently between 1926 and 1932 with her husband, archeologist Sir Max Mallowan. Now, after a £22 million refurbishment, the Pera Palace is a direct link into the golden age of travel: a great-aunt given a multimillion-pound wash and brush-up.
The 1892-vintage splendour of the Pera Palace, once host to Orient Express passengers as they glamorously schlepped in from Paris, is writ large and utterly tasteful. This is not an ‘international’ hotel where local flavour ends at the door. Outside sits a maroon Plymouth car, used for transfers. Inside are marbled walls, antiques and a venerable cash register that may once have taken Christie’s guineas.
I walked over the tiled floor and noticed a spaniel-eyed shoe-shine man, eyeing my brogues expectantly. The prime suspect? Nah. It’s always the one you least expect.
The Agatha Christie connection
Christie is indelibly associated with the hotel, and the world’s most published writer lingers in salons and the city. The Pera Palace, designed by French-Turkish architect Alexander Vallaury in Art Nouveau-meets-Oriental style, hammers the continental crossroads theme home. I went up to room 411: large, elegant and without a distracting view of the Bosphorus. Could I transfer to here? “Sorry,” said Esin Sungur. “It’s always booked.”
Others to have stayed here include the Queen, Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Hemingway. But the most prominent spirit here is Agatha’s.
I necked an Efes beer on the Orient Bar’s splendid terrace then went for supper in the Agatha Restaurant: quail kebab, artichoke soup. Murder by Meze? I certainly felt the generous helpings as I stumbled off into the back alleys for a raki nightcap. The streets heaved, the crowd moving like a millipede. Turkey may be an Islamic majority country, but bar cleaved to bar. I managed about half of my six-inch glass of Raki, watched the pageant, and went to bed.
In the morning, a spectacular sunrise lured me up, and I went down to breakfast. A delicious croissant, finished with honeycomb, reminded me that this most French patisserie had started life as an Ottoman ‘crescent’. Another plus was the lift: a glorious carpeted wooden cabin, at 120 years as old as Agatha herself. A great location for a crafty garroting? Well yes: at Agatha’s ‘birthday party’ last year, someone ‘died’ here. If you’re going to put on a Murder Mystery event, then it might as well be at the Pera Palace.
Walking the Bosphorus
I left the hotel and walked to the Bosphorus, the glittering waist of Istanbul. This is a city that benefits, like Rio and Cape Town, from amazing topography, and the hills were top of my mind as I struggled back up the incline from the Bosphurus’ floating bridge.
Here, life is lived outside. Rough metalwork shops melded into tourist emporia. In the old town, I nosed around the Grand Bazaar, thinking of Mallowan and Christie: great collectors and rug buyers. The Bazaar is a tourist trap, but one that offers an irresistible jolt of the East. I strolled to Istanbul’s big three: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. The latter is home to a magnificent jewellery collection, including the Topkapi Dagger, as used in the thriller Topkapi. There is something about raffish Istanbul that inspires the imagination.
In the late afternoon I alighted a boat – white leather seats, pink windows – for a glamorous splash along the Bosphorus. As the Bond-like craft cruised, the banks became replete with international glamour: an Ottoman palace here, a waterside restaurant there, the occasional ancient castle. The city’s historical depth surely inspired Christie and back at the Pera Palace, I looked at the museum room (room 101, no less), which includes old newspapers from the day that Ataturk died, as well as Christie memorabilia.
And there remains a mystery most weird: the key story. In 1926, at the age of 36, Agatha Christie went missing in Britain for 11 days. A film directed by Michael Apted was made in 1979, trying to piece together this episode and, bizarrely, a Hollywood seance even took place in pre-production.
At this event, a ghostly ‘Agatha’ gave spooky directions to the skirting board in room 411, where the key to a missing diary was found. A replica of the key now sits under glass outside her room, testifying to the most enduring Christie mystery: those missing days.
To this day, nobody knows why she dunnit.