I generally avoid R-rated movies, and I also generally avoid books that would be R-rated if they were movies. I like reading mysteries, however, which nearly always have some crime of violence as the basis for the plot, and it is difficult to predict from the book’s cover whether the violence will be of the R variety or only PG.
I would be inclined to give Harem an R rating, based on a handful of scenes not only of violence but also sexual violence. I don’t care for sexually explicit scenes to begin with, but at least they are generally pretty forgettable. Scenes of sexual violence are much harder to forget, however, as well as scenes of particularly gruesome violence. A skilled writer doesn’t even need to make it a prolonged description – a few well-placed words lodge a vivid mental image in my mind.
I can’t say that the violence, sexual and otherwise, that appears in Harem is gratuitous, however. As repellant as they are, these scenes are integral to the plot, which is convoluted but unfortunately quite believable. I know next to nothing of Turkish society, but Barbara Nadel evidently knows a good deal, as well as of the evil and weakness of human nature that are hardly unique to Turkey. There are good people in her story, notably police inspector Cetin Ikmen, but the corruption that permeates society turns out to be beyond his power to combat.
In this world, it appears, justice does not win out. Many of the bad guys get killed, but not by heroes who ride off into the sunset. Rather the picture is of men who, having succumbed to temptation to get involved with evil, find themselves used and then destroyed by the more powerful evildoers.
The good guys are frustrated that they are stymied in their quest for truth and justice, but confronted with the choice to keep fighting and bring death on themselves and their families, they choose to go on with life. One of them is a new father, and Ikmen counsels him to look at what is good in life, and to enjoy his wife and son. As bleak as the ending seems, there is that life-affirming element to remember.
I see from reading reviews at amazon.com that Harem is the fifth book in a series of novels featuring Cetin Ikmen and modern Turkish society in Istanbul. Publishers Weekly’s review of the first novel, Belshazzar’s Daughter, makes the point that “Stunning final twists in this disturbing tale suggest that history’s cycles of violence and evil will continue unabated.” I don’t know if they meant that such cycles will continue in Nadel’s novels or in real life, but having read Harem as well as having some idea what goes on in the world, I am inclined to say that they are correct.