The Paris Review

The Sultan, the Armenian, and the Gaslight Mystery

Monsieur Ara in his lamp workshop. Photo: Aysegul Savas.

Through wider labyrinths of lamplighted city. —Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Of the ten thousand books in the library of Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II, two thousand were detective novels. Abdülhamid also founded the first secret service and sent spies across the empire to report to him. Many sources cite these two facts—the Sultan’s love of mystery novels and his secret service—back to back. I agree that the story, told like this, stirs the imagination.

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Inside a blue shop at the end of rue Flatters in Paris, lamps hang from every inch of the ceiling. There are globes and barrels, in brass and opaline, in marbling swirls of orange and red, dark green, blue, and pink. Lamps line the shelves, spilling over to the crimson carpet on the wooden floor; mantles, finials, and valves are stacked in every nook.

The shop, however, is dimly lit, a faint smell of gas coming from the back room where the proprietor, Monsieur Ara, with large square spectacles, trimmed beard, bow tie, and vest, sorts through his collection of thousands of pieces. Bent over the large worktable on his high stool, he fixes lamps, strings glass beads for fringes, and demonstrates the history of lighting to his visitors—from round wick to flat yellow flame to blue—illuminating the scientific discoveries of the Industrial Revolution one

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