It’s not too often that I venture out into unfamiliar literary territory when I come back home for a break. I usually start with my favourites and then I tentatively branch out. This time, though, I was recommended someone called Boris Akunin, a crime writer whose main character appears to be Erast Fandorin. This initially mousy character is a sort of police inspector (a clerk, really) who, in The Winter Queen, gets embroiled in an international conflict when he begins investigating what seems to be a simple case of suicide.
This isn’t a Holmes/Christie mystery, by any means – there are no direct clues leading to clever inferences and quick apprehensions of the criminal. This is more a sweeping story of international intrigue, something that concentrates on the flavour of 19th century Russia as much as it does on the plot itself.
I’m not sure what I think of the characterization, to be honest. It sometimes seems as though Fandorin a huge coward, and at other times, he bravely charges in where fools would fear to tread; he displays flashes of brilliant intuitive thinking and then sometimes seems to have misplaced that brilliance. But it’s completely possible that it’s a reflection of how Fandorin is developing as a character; this is, after all, the first in a series of books.
What I definitely appreciate, however, is the atmosphere of the novel, the gentle humour with which Akunin treats his characters. It’s strangely effective when juxtaposed with his wham-bang-James-Bond style of storytelling; this is a story with a huge dash of romance, even comedy. Take, for instance, the first few pages, where Fandorin’s boss sneers over a paper advertisement for a male corset (called the Lord Byron). But Fandorin himself is currently being constricted by that very corset, and his reaction is really quite endearing. Later on, though, that very corset saves his hide when someone tries to knife him.
There’s also the sense of being transported to 19th century Russia, complete with cobblestones, the fantastic street names, the slightly archaic language. It’s always interesting (and frustrating) to read something in translation, because it’s intriguing to wonder if the words you’re reading are exactly what the author meant – and at the same time, of course, that can be annoying, thinking that you don’t really know what’s going on. With my favourite Italian authors, for instance, that’s a sort of prickly mystery, something I’m never sure if I enjoy. I also have a theory that translation automatically makes the language slightly more old-fashioned in English that the author intends it to, but that’s not something I have the faintest hope of verifying for myself (unless I read Tamil translations, of course, which… why would I).
Whatever else Akunin might or might not be good at, he’s great at endings. I won’t spoil it here, but it hints at huge changes in Fandorin’s life, in his very character itself. It’s also a very Bond-esque moment, I think (from what little I know of Bond).
I think the perfect setting to read Fandorin books – not that this is ever going to happen – is sitting in a transcontinental train rattling through Europe. Maybe with a puffy meringue and a cup of strong coffee.
… now I want cake and coffee.