Dennis Wheatley was a popular author in early twentieth-century England. His novel The Eunuch of Stamboul enjoyed many printings with different cover designs, many of which illustrate the titular eunuch.
Wheatley dedicated his book to Capt. George "Peter" H. Hill, author of Go Spy the Land and Then Came the Dawn, who he credits as an influence. He also mentions the friendship of "Colonel Charles Davey and Mr. Norman Penzer, both of whom have known the mystery and romance of Stamboul."
The author lays bare one of his guiding stereotypes about Turks late in the story. It will be helpful for us to see it up front:
"Kazdim [the Eunuch] was so completely Oriental — subtle, shrewd, sadistic, but so certain of himself and showing so little of his emotions that it had seemed a waste of breath to bandy words with him, whereas the [Turkish] Prince was so much more a Western type that Swithin [the Englishman] felt almost as if he were up against an exceptionally depraved and brutal specimen of his own kind." (p. 207)
In this blog post, I reveal the repetitive descriptions of Kazdim as fat, ugly, and evil, which is a common treatment of eunuch characters in both fiction and non-fiction. After that, I summarize the plot (with spoilers!) and provide links to the film version.
The trope of the fat, ugly, evil eunuch
The story is notable for its portrayal of the Eunuch, Kazdim Hari Bekar. A "treacherous rascal" (p. 55), he had formerly lived in the palace "less than ten years before" the novel's action is set and had "slain beautiful disobedient odalisques with one of those glittering scimitars" (p. 122). With the fall of the old political system, he is now the Chief of Police. The career trajectory makes sense, as a character explains:
"Spying's the natural business of a Eunuch. In the big harems there were scores of bonnie lassies wi' only one husband between the lot of them and no natural ootlet fer their passions. At times they'd go fair mad fer the lack of a man, so every harem was riddled wi' plots to smuggle in some lusty young hamal or soldier fer an hour. 'Twas the job of the Eunuchs to match their cunning against that of the women, and the clever ones made a mint o'money at the game. Think of the opportunities fer blackmail in sich a poseetion, mon! When one of these onnotural creatures had nosed out a love affair he'd play the woman like a salmon trout by threatening ta tell the master if she did not find him sil'er enough to still his tongue or, if she were rich, he'd encourage her to play the whore provided he made a guid thing oot of it. But all the time he'd have to go canny as a cat, fer if the woman were caught at her tricks he'd be called on ta answer fer it and if his brother Eunuchs found him out they'd tell on him to curry favour with their boss, so he stood a double chance of having his fat neck wrung. Can ye tell me a better school than that fer a secret service man?" (p. 56)
One of the British characters speculates: "Kazdim is naturally a reactionary at heart. As one of the old school of thugs and grafters the reforms Kemal has brought in have probably robbed him of a fortune, so he would be among the first to sympathize with the aims of the Kaka [the anti-Kemal resistance]." (p. 116)
The word "Eunuch" is typically capitalized in this novel — for example, "the young Turk probably knew who the Eunuch was and his evil reputation already" (p. 109) — suggesting it is treated more as a title than a gender. There are no other eunuch characters in the novel.
Kazdim is a single-minded spy and assassin and is uniformly charmless in his conversation. Every time he appears, the reader is reminded of how enormously fat he is. We never see him eat; instead, he is always smoking cigarettes.
"He was a tall man with immensely powerful shoulders but the effect of his height was minimized by his gigantic girth. He had the stomach of an elephant and would easily have turned the scale at twenty stone [i.e. 280 lbs, or 127 kg]. His face was even more unusual than his body, for apparently no neck supported it and it rose straight out of his shoulders like a vast inverted U. The eyes were tiny beads in that great expanse of flesh and almost buried in folds of fat, the cheeks puffed out, yet withered like the skin of a last year's apple, and the mouth was an absurd pink rosebud set above a seemingly endless cascade of chins." (p. 87)
Later he is described as having a "circumference about two ells [i.e. 90 inches, or 2.3 meters] and weight nearly up to that of a Brontosaurus." (p. 164) These sobriquets make comebacks: "the twenty-stone Eunuch" (p. 172), "the Brontosaurus is after her" (p. 236). When not dinosaur-like, he is "elephantine" (p. 290).
He has a "vast protruding paunch," an "absurdly small mouth," and a "tiny fluting voice." Again, in another place: "the big man bleated in his high thin voice." (p. 173)
He is: "Huge, sinister, implacable, relentless, as though the passage of time had no meaning for him" (p. 133), owner of "those small beady eyes embedded in their rolls of fat" and a "high-pitched, child-like voice" (pp. 135-136). "His great moon-like face broke into a smile of evil enjoyment as he slowly crushed out his cigarette with that air of terrible finality." (p. 171) And: "...the great brute placidly lit another cigarette and puffed at it thoughtfully, watching him with that unwinking stare by which a snake fascinates a bird." (p. 172) Given an opportunity to execute someone, Kazdim's face is "pasty white and grinning in the torch light, a mask of unutterably cruel enjoyment." (p. 182) "The Eunuch looked old, tired and evil tempered as he sank heavily into the only armchair." (p. 255) "Over her mother's shoulder, as in some awful nightmare, she saw the vast, still form of the Eunuch, overlapping the sides of the armchair, a great pile of cigarette ends making a small mountain in a brass ash tray beside him." (p. 271)
He has "puffy eyelids" (p. 215). "The Eunuch's enormous sides wobbled and shook as though they were made of jelly." (p. 215) "Kazdim's great expanse of face had gone grey with fury." (p. 271) "The Eunuch's small dark eyes bored into hers." (p. 272)
"The only things small about him are "[h]is small feet which so miraculously supported that huge body..." (p. 272) Again, "the patter of the Eunuch's tiny feet sounded upon the first stairs..." (p. 274)
Even the description of his study contains a fat joke:
"They crossed a spacious tiled hall, with a gallery running round above it, and a fountain playing in a marble basin at its centre. Then passed into a small, comfortably furnished room, with book-lined shelves and one tall window. A great satinwood desk, from which a semi-circular portion had been cut to accommodate the stomach of its owner, and a specially made swivel chair of enormous proportions behind it, showed the room to be the Eunuch's special sanctum." (p. 290)
His allegiance to his superior, Prince Ali, is revolting in large part because Ali is revolting. When Ali enters the room, Kazdim unseats himself "and, with unexpected agility, salaamed almost to the floor" (p. 215) He addresses Prince Ali: "''To hear is to obey,' O Flower of Holiness,' cringed the Eunuch, bowing again almost to the ground." (p. 218)
Plot (with spoilers)
The story has a contemporary setting during the presidency of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1923-1938).
The first six chapters set the stage. Through a series of somewhat farcical accidents, Diana, the young daughter of Sir George Duncannon, is mauled outside a dance in England by the lips of the late Turkish sultan's nephew, General His Serene Highness the Prince Ali, Emir of Konia and Grand Commander of the Star and Crescent. Diana is unsure of his age, as "[i]t is difficult to tell with Orientals," (p. 12) except that she knows he served in the World War, but in any case he is a loathsome chauvinist and she doesn't care for his advances. In an amusing appraisal: "Half unconsciously she noticed that for so tall a man his hand was surprisingly small — plump, sensitive, womanish — and that the index finger was distinctly crooked." (p. 6) An English officer, Capt. Swithin Destime, rushes to her aid and decks Prince Ali without realizing who he is. Destime is fired from the military as a diplomatic necessity. He fears, despite his fluency in Turkish, Arabic, and Greek, that he will never get another job, but George Duncannon offers him a special covert mission for him in Stamboul as a spy. The characters sail to Constantinople.
In chapter seven, the British party disembark their yacht in Stamboul and the fun begins. A young Turkish man, Reouf, confides the intention of his political group, the Kaka, to overthrow Mustafa Kemal. At that moment, Kazdim, "one of the strangest looking individuals they had ever seen," appears and interrupts. He warns them that he speaks English and lets them know he'd like to show them "the wall" built by Emperor Theodosius in the fifth century. Although Swithin intuitively feels "intense distrust," he idiotically asks the man if he is a tour guide and, yet more idiotically, he and Reouf climb into the wall with him. (p. 88)
"The repulsive-looking fat man" leads them to an oubliette (a hole through which people are dropped from a great height into a river) and warns them that "such things still might happen to those who are so clever that they make the big mistake." (pp. 90-91) (Later, Swithin recalls the eunuch's face as "gloating" at this moment. (p. 144)) That evening, Kazdim shows up and announces, in a "thin falsetto," that "that of which we spoke together has happened." Reouf rises and leaves with Kazdim. Swithin remains clueless. A woman at the table tells him: "That is the Chief of the Secret Police, Kazdim Hari Bekar, the Eunuch of Stamboul!" (p. 107) She has to explain further: "That man is a monster of sadistic cruelty; 'e 'as never missed an execution an' delights in carrying them out 'imself!" (p. 108)
Swithin tells Diana that he treated Tania Vorontzoff as a messenger for some confidential information. Diana tells him that this was a big mistake, since Tania works for Kazdim and "the second Kazdim sees that letter he will be after you." (p. 118)
In the next scene, Kazdim hides behind a pillar (as best he can, a "vast grotesque figure...in a modern lounge suit" (p. 122)) to spy on Peter Carew, who is dining with Tania. Kazdim then surprises Tania at her home, seating his "vast form" in "their largest armchair" and generating "a little mountain of cigarette stubs". Tania's mother, the Baroness, deliberately calls Kazdim by the title "Effendi" (i.e. lord) because she knows he likes it, even though he has to ask her to refrain from doing so because the title is no longer usable under the new laws. (p. 132, see also 258) "His little rosebud mouth curved into a smile between the huge hanging cheeks wrinkled like withered apple skin," Wheatley says, just before Kazdim threatens the Baroness: "I am your protector as long as you obey my every word — if not..." (p. 133) While talking with Tania he suddenly shouts "Silence!" and adds: "A chattering woman is a scourge to thought." (p. 137) He threatens to send Tania and her mother back to Russia, as he controls their permit to live in Turkey. He tells her she's not the only attractive woman he can find for the job he needs done. "Allah! why is that thou hast cursed women by making them such imbeciles? Think, girl. Think, I say!" (pp. 137-138) He twists her ear gratuitously on his way out the door. (p.138)
Reouf's drowned corpse is recovered, hands tied behind his back, and Swithin finds time to talk with Reouf's brother Arif. Arif says he knows that "that hell-spawn Kazdim" killed him. (p. 148) Swithin argues that Kazdim did so not to damage the Kaka but to protect it, as Kazdim likely believed that Reouf had loose lips and was a liability. He believes that Kazdim, despite his position for the current government, is himself secretly a Kaka rebel. Swithin warns Arif that "that devil Kazdim is high up in this thing so he will be one of your new rulers. Surely you are not mad enough to wish to make a Minister of your brother's murderer." (p. 158)
Kazdim and his two armed guards lie in wait in his own apartment for Swithin to arrive. (p. 168) As he threatens Swithin with immediate death via oubliette, "the Eunuch chuckled." (p. 174) Swithin resists and ends up bound, gagged, semi-conscious, sharing the back seat of a car with Kazdim, driven to the oubliette. Two guards drop him down the hole.
The guards are described as follows:
"Both were huge negroes, naked to the waist, their black skins shiny and glistening, their white eye-balls staring at him with dumb animal curiosity.
Kazdim spoke to them in his high falsetto. The mouth of one opened in a half-imbecile grin and Swithin realized dimly, through a wave of sickening horror, that the man had no tongue — and that they were mutes, old henchmen of the Eunuch's from his Palace days perhaps, the instruments of many hideous crimes under his orders if they could only tell of them." (p. 182)
This description is dehumanizing insofar as they have "animal" rather than human "curiosity" and even "eye-balls" rather than eyes. The word "dumb" is complicated insofar as it is immediately revealed that they are, in fact, mute (a secondary definition of the word "dumb"), but Swithin had not known this until after they were described as "dumb."
Swithin miraculously survives his attempted execution. When he next sees Prince Ali, he tells a swaggering lie that Ali and Kazdim are expected to be hanged together (p. 209). Kazdim, for his part, is amazed to see Swithin alive. Swithin says "I have nine lives like a cat," and Kazdim thinks of ways to kill him again:
"give you a drink of strychnine, stick a knife into your liver — shoot you through both lungs — impale you on a stake — hang you by the neck — cut your throat — and, finally, burn your body. Thus will we dispose of the eight lives which you have left, and if I exercise some care, you will, I trust, remain conscious up to the seventh operation — although each would prove fatal in itself after a lapse of time."
Asked for alternatives, Kazdim suggests
"bowstringing — cutting of the head — flaying — suffocation by pillows — starvation — sewing up in a sack with wild cats — snake-bite — or feeding you to the rats in one of the old cisterns,"
methods he claims to "have witnessed in my time." (p. 213)
Here, then, we finally get some back story on Kazdim's character. He says that he was mentored by "'Twisted Beard' Pasha" who was the "Comptroller of the Household to His Majesty the Sultan Abdul Hamid," and also by the "Grand Eunuch Djevher Agha." Swithin taunts him, saying that Djevher Agha, just like Kazdim, had "royal proportions and many chins" which resulted in a botched hanging, a long time choking on his own blood, with his head finally "nearly a yard from his shoulders and his great carcass suspended by a rope of neck not thicker than my wrist." (pp. 214-215) (Note: I suspect Wheatley may have gotten this information about Djevher Agha's hanging from the 11th chapter, "Cleansing of the City and Dispersal of the Imperial Harem," of Francis McCullagh's 1910 book The Fall of Abd-ul-Hamid.) But this is the only information we are to receive about the formation of Kazdim's character. We don't hear about how he came to be castrated or why he is so evil.
He spies on Tania and her mother, and reveals himself, "huge, triumphant, his little black eyes glinting, his tiny mouth twisted into an evil snarl." He indicts them with "a thin vindictive screech." (p. 273) He kills Tania's mother by slapping her on the neck with his bare hand (p. 274), the very touch of his skin proving itself lethal.
When Ali says in front of everyone that he intends to commit a prolonged rape against Diana by making her bathe, dress, and make obeisance to him according to the elaborate harem ritual, Kazdim "smiled with devilish amusement and toyed with the big automatic." (p. 295) He is, to complete the poetry of the novel-length fat joke, shot in the stomach (of course by Tania). He issues "a thin wail" of mortal injury. "His black eyes started out from between their rolls of fat, a terribly agony seemed to shake his great body for a second, then he crashed forward..." (p. 297) Swithin muses shortly afterward: "The only clear thought she had left was to get the Eunuch — and she did." (p. 301) We don't see Kazdim finally expire and he isn't given any last words, but we hear he returned fatal gunfire at Tania before he died.
In 1936, the year after the publication of the novel, it was turned into a film called "The Secret of Stamboul." Kazdim was played by Frank Vosper, who never made another film because he died suddenly in early 1937.
In this short clip, beginning at 1:30, you can see Kazdim on the left dropping an object into the oubliette to impress Reouf and Swithin. The dialogue is not the same as in the book, nor is the actor as physically large as the novelist insisted the Eunuch was.
The film was also known as "The Spy in White." The full film is here: