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Books 129-130: The Adventures of Erast Fandorin Books 1 & 2

I recently began reading this series of historical mysteries set in Imperial Russia featuring the dashing detective/secret agent Erast Fandorin. Akunin has stated that his intention with the Fandorin series is to explore the various sub-genres of detective fiction and so each of the novels has a different focus. I have to admit this quite intrigued me as so often crime writers find a comfortable niche and then write to formula.

Book 129: The Winter Queen (Erast Fandorin Book 01)
Author: Boris Akunin, 1998. Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2003.
Genre: Historical Detective/Espionage. Conspiracy.
Other Details: Hardback, 249 pages

The first novel in the series is a conspiracy mystery and introduces the 20-year old Erast Fandorin at the start of his career as a detective. His father had recently died bankrupt forcing Fandorin to abandon his studies at Moscow University and take on a clerical role with the police. He is meticulous, well-mannered and highly literate and so soon is being mentored by his kind-hearted supervisor, Xavier Grushin.

The novel opens in May 1876 in a public park as a university student commits suicide in front of a young noblewoman. This apparently open-and-shut case is given to the inexperienced Fandorin. In the course of his investigations Fandorin discovers that the student was engaged in a game of Russian roulette with another student and that he had recently changed his will to leave his considerable fortune to the Moscow chapter of an international network of schools for orphan boys founded by an English noblewoman, Lady Astair. This strikes Fandorin as suspicious and it is not long before he finds himself stumbling into a conspiracy with a chilling agenda complete with a femme fatale, who exerts an almost hypnotic influence over men as femme fatales are expected to do and a white-eyed assassin, who pops up and does what mysterious assassins do for a living.

The novel is well written and has a labyrinthine plot that demands close attention. It also contains a gentle romance as Fandorin falls in love with Elizaveta, the young woman who had witnessed the initial suicide. I loved it and its final pages left me reeling and certainly eager for more! As a result I started immediately upon the next book in the series.

Book 130: The Turkish Gambit (Erast Fandorin Book 02)
Author: Boris Akunin, 1998. Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2005.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Espionage. War.
Other Details: Paperback. 288 pages.

Akunin changes his approach here by giving centre stage to Varvara Suvorova, a young 'Russian woman holding 'progressive" ideas. As the novel opens she is travelling disguised as a boy to meet up with her fiancé who has volunteered to serve in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. When her money and luggage are stolen she finds herself stranded in a rather rough tavern. Fandorin, also in disguise, comes to her rescue though in a rather unorthodox fashion. He is also on his way to the front line having just escaped from Turkish captivity. When they reach the Russian HQ, Varvara finds that her fiancé is too busy with his duties as a cryptographer and so she spends her time at the correspondent's club where she encounters a variety of colourful characters. Meanwhile Fandorin is advised by one of his contacts that a Turkish agent is conducting an intelligence operation against the Russian army and may even be have infiltrated Russian headquarters and so he begins an investigation.

It was interesting to have Fandorin assigned to a main supporting role and to see him and his actions mainly through Varvara's perspective. She thoroughly dislikes him at the start though this view is softened over time as she begins to understand his personality. This viewpoint also strengthens the sense of Fandorin's isolation in his role as an intelligence officer and highlights the changes that have taken place since his introduction in The Winter Queen.

Again, Akunin delivers a strong, complex plot with a range of well developed characters. I really should have made a note of some of the names and backgrounds when they were first introduced as I struggled a bit later on. He weaves into the narrative historical details of this war. I felt it was also a strength to forefront Varvara's experience of the horrors of war such as when the dead and wounded are brought back to camp.

These both are multi-layered, thought provoking narratives that not only convey an exciting story but address historical and political aspects of the period. It marks them out as much more than the kind of 'easy reads' associated with many detective novels. I also smiled when reading one newspaper review that likened Fandorin to an 'anti-James Bond' in terms of his relationships with women, which he keeps very formal. This thought had crossed my mind as well.
Tags: conspiracy fiction, historical fiction, murder mystery, translation
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