American readers are way behind the times when it comes to Erast Fandorin. The young Russian police detective, a dapper model of resourcefulness and exemplar of the fine manners of his 19th-century world, is the classy creation of Boris Akunin. And Akunin is himself the pseudonymous invention of Grigory Chkhartishvili, a scholarly, Georgia-born, Moscow-based translator and critic who was deep into a serious literary project about writers and suicide when the persona of Akunin took hold. Inspired, he has said, by his wife’s love of trashy paperback murder mysteries (and her snobbish embarrassment at being seen toting them around), Akunin set out to devise an erudite, anti-trash thriller genre to pass muster with his fancy friends. The result has become a best-selling craze at home – there are 10 Fandorin books in print to date, and a television series and movie adaptation are in the works.
Russia’s favorite mass-market-but-not-mindless reading, it turns out, looks back to a golden czarist past where no one is so wretched (or, for that matter, so revolutionary or so politically disillusioned) as to distract from the charms and foibles of fin de siecle protocol. The Winter Queen, in which Fandorin makes his first appearance, sparkles with social commentary, faux-stuffy footnotes, and a sly coating of self-awareness about the glorious bad old days. (The agile, witty English translation is by Andrew Bromfield.) But what pulls a reader in is the colorful ripping yarn Akunin unspools.
We’re quickly engaged in a galloping story of murder, suicide, deception, and disguise. We’re thoroughly awash in Russianness, too, both of a bygone time nostalgically encased in amber and of a much more anxious, fractured present. ”Can a Russian fail to know another Russian?” one sleuth asks another when the two first make contact, dismissing the need for something as uncouth as a password. ”It is enough for me to gaze into your bright eyes…and I see…a youth pure hearted and bold, filled with noble aspirations and patriotic devotion to his fatherland. Why, of course – in our department we have no other kind.” A tart aftertaste of sarcasm lingers, a pleasure.
The author has said that he assembled Fandorin from the admirable qualities of a Russian intellectual, a British gentleman, and a Japanese samurai. But while Erast Fandorin remains constant and reliable – a capital fellow with many of Sherlock Holmes’ keen deductive talents and fewer of his antisocial eccentricities – the populace around him is a menagerie of human weaknesses and political viewpoints that reflect not only the attitudes of historical Mother Russia but also varieties of contemporary thought (perhaps among Akunin’s sophisticated crowd?). Tucked within the anthropological detail – and Akunin is likely to detour happily for an elaborate description of a parlor game, say, or of one gentleman’s old-fashioned challenge to the honor of another – are renegade modern opinions. And to speak them, The Winter Queen marshals a parade of visiting characters, none of whom can be counted on to live long.
In the midst of the novel’s velvety reenactment of things past and between tumultuous escapades of pursuit and escape that would leave Indiana Jones winded, the author enjoys setting off little land mines of liberalism. One passing philosopher, tartly identified as a ”man of the future,” who arrives from St. Petersburg for a stint as Fandorin’s boss, manages pointedly to discredit anti-Semitism – ”when disaster strikes and the causes are not clear, they immediately start talking about the Sanhedrin” – in the course of a mini-lecture on the origins of the biblical fallen angel Azazel. (Azazel is the book’s original Russian title.) Another Tolstoy-scented drawing-room type, a wealthy British lady admired for the homes she has established for orphaned children, instructs Fandorin on sexual politics with the insights of a practical feminist. ”In a society where men are the bosses,” she observes, ”an exceptionally talented woman arouses suspicion and hostility.”
The Winter Queen begins with the apparent suicide of a distraught student in a lovely Moscow park on a late spring day; by the end, there’s no one left for our hero to trust – paranoia seems prudent among so many slippery citizens. We can trust Fandorin, though, and carry around Akunin’s brainy Russian thriller without shame.