Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

It should be pretty obvious by now that I am a sucker for the murder mystery. I’ll admit it. I am particularly fond of the British style of mystery, but I don’t limit myself to one type.

Why not broaden my horizons to a Russian mystery? I suppose technically The Brothers Karamazov should count, but it doesn’t exactly lend itself to an easy weekend read. I thought I would give this a try.

Boris Akunin is the (very sensible) nom de plume of Grigory Chkhartishvilli. Among other pursuits, he is a recognized translator of Japanese (into Russian). He came to fame through his novels, however. This book is the first of the Erast Fandorin mysteries, of which there are about a dozen. I am unsure how many have been translated into English, but our local library has four. Akunin also wrote a Sister Pelagia series of mysteries. All of the translations were done by Andrew Wakefield.

The Erast Fandorin series is set in the 1870s, in Czarist Moscow. The atmosphere is well researched, although it is always odd to see other perspectives on on, say, England and America. We have our stereotypes of Russians, and they have theirs of us.

So what is a Russian murder mystery like? Well, for one thing, expect a few patronymics. Wakefield tries to keep them manageable, so one doesn’t have to keep a spreadsheet of names. Also important enough to warrant an appendix is the use of rank. Rank is very important. Each rank has a civil and military equivalence, and an expected form of address. "Your Worship" is very different from "Your Honor", and a mistake can have serious consequences. In fact, mistakes as to rank figure in the plot.

Erast Fandorin is also a peculiar sort of hero. One expects the British sleuth: an eccentric, usually older, whose penchant for careful observation leads to clues. Or one might expect the American sleuth, the hardboiled police detective, equally adept at investigative procedure and shootouts. Fandorin is a bit different. He relies, not so much on observation, as on his instinct. He is young, very green, and naive. It shows, and it repeatedly gets him into trouble. He does use his wits, but good luck is even more important to his success - and indeed his survival. As another character notes, he has some sort of halo about him that seems to protect him from ordinary danger. (Although, in true Russian pessimism, that character also notes that the person he previously saw the halo on survived impossible odds in war, but succumbed to an unlikely illness.)

Fate, luck, and dark pessimism dominate the characters in this novel. Critic Alan Furst commented that it is as if Tolstoy wrote a murder mystery. But I see other Russians in it as well. Count Zurov in particular seems as if he would fit perfectly in a Chekhov play - or a Dostoyevsky novel. You half expect him to commit suicide off stage.

And that is really how the book starts, with an apparent suicide in public. But things are not as they seem (or there wouldn’t be much of a book…), and Fandorin is led down a rabbit hole of anarchist plots. There is a lot here in common with Joseph Conrad’s book on an anarchist plot gone wrong, The Secret Agent, which I read last year. While Conrad explores the psychological depths of the characters, The Winter Queen is all about the suspense and adventure - although it does raise some uncomfortable questions.

Fandorin is an orphan, as are many of the characters that populate this book. In the society in which they live, they are largely at a significant disadvantage. Is this disadvantage worth fighting? What means are morally acceptable to change a society in which birth is everything? In many ways, this is the discussion of the last two centuries. Should the wealth into which one is born (or not, as the case may be), be the primary determinant of one’s chances in life? It’s easy to console ourselves with a myth of social mobility, but the statistics don’t always support the myth.

While this is an interesting question, it isn’t the main focus of the book. The question is important, but the plot is the key. Who is behind the murders, and what is the motive.

With that comes a warning. DO NOT become attached to any characters in this book (except Fandorin, because he has a series to his name), because they are likely not who they seem, and may well get whacked. Still, the characters are intriguing, and it is hard not to wonder what will happen to them.

Just a few other odd observations. The “game” which we call Russian Roulette is referred to as “American Roulette.” The shoe on the other foot.

I also loved the expression used to describe tedious desk work. “Polishing the seats of our pants.” I think I will use that do describe my job.

In summary, this book was entertaining and gripping. It wasn’t in my pantheon of great mysteries, but it wasn’t a waste of time by any means. I do intend to read more from this author.

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