The Winter Queen

by Boris Akunin

Published by Random House

320 pages, 2003

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Muscovy Dick

Reviewed by Sarah Weinman


Five years ago, an unknown author's first novel was brought out by a small publishing house. The expectations were not very high; after all, nobody had heard of this writer, the publisher itself was fairly new and the book did not fit any category readers were accustomed to in literary fiction. That book -- Azazel -- sold 10,000 copies initially, which was quite respectable. But then word of mouth spread, and a second book by the same author was released not long after. By the next year, he was an absolute sensation in his home country. The novelist's work became so popular, that it was considered to be a social embarrassment if one did not have his books in the house or, even worse, had never heard of him.

The country was Russia, the publishing house was Zakarov, and the author was -- and still is -- Boris Akunin (the pseudonym of Gregory Chkartashvili, a translator of Japanese literature and editor of the Journal of Foreign Languages). That Akunin's oeuvre is now the most popular series of crime novels ever to emerge from the former Soviet Union is likely because he filled a niche no other author had sought to occupy. So far, there have been nine books starring Akunin's raffish and celebrated detective hero, Erast Petrovich Fandorin, whose exploits begin as a young man about town in 19th-century Moscow and continue as he ages and the new century dawns. This "Fandorin Cycle" not only chronicles the exploits of an investigator who possesses charm, cunning and a penchant for disguises, but showcases a fantasy version of tsarist Russia, where opulence is at its apex and intrigues abound. The books have so captured the Russian imagination, that "Erastomania" reigns among those fans who frequent Russian-only message boards and chat rooms to discuss and fawn over all things Fandorin.

It was only a matter of time, considering Akunin's success, before this series was translated and put under the scrutiny of the U.S. and UK publishing worlds. Republication, in English, of the inaugural Fandorin novel -- its title changed from Azazel to the more austere-sounding The Winter Queen -- is lauded by its publisher as a major event. Naturally, many questions must be asked: Is all the hype warranted? Are the books really as good as their incredible success internationally would indicate? Do Akunin's characterizations and prose translate well into English? Happily, the answer to all of these questions is an unqualified yes.

* * *

In a glittering, glamorous version of 1876 Moscow, where unsavory elements are kept out of sight and the nobility is revered above all, a young student from the nearby university entertains the masses in a bizarre, though oddly charming game. He playacts a confession of love to a nearby maiden, then swears he will kill himself over her. As she and the crowd look on in horror, the young man pulls a gun, spins the chamber -- and shoots himself in the head. By all appearances, it's a suicide. He put the pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger. But why?

That's the question the city police's Criminal Investigation Division needs to answer, especially as unsettling inconsistencies mount: Why did the young student, Kokorin, leave behind a detailed will indicating to whom his surprisingly substantial wealth should be allocated? Why are there whispers that the "suicide" was premeditated, possibly the culmination of a duel, maybe precipitated by the spurning of an elegant lady who entertains some of Moscow's finest noblemen? Solutions, however, are not to be found by veteran CID folk, who aren't well equipped for that sort of thing. As Grushin, the detective superintendent, muses early on, "[W]e spend most of our time around here polishing the seats of our pants and writing reports about the petty bourgeois Potbelly dispatching his lawful spouse and three little ones with an axe in a drunken fit." Fresher eyes will be needed to see to the bottom of Kokorin's demise.

Thus we are introduced to Winter Queen's protagonist, Erast Fandorin. He is young, barely 20, and newly orphaned. His father, once a wealthy gentleman, had died incurring many debts, and Fandorin's academic career was cut short as a result. His job with the CID as "a civil servant, fourteenth class" is only three weeks old. Yet his diligent note-keeping and inquisitive nature have not gone unnoticed by his bosses, and on a whim, they decide to include young Fandorin in the investigation. By doing so, they get a whole lot more than they'd bargained for -- not only because Fandorin has a remarkable ability to suss out clues where none were apparent, but because he gets himself into many a dangerous situation, whether in Moscow or further out on the continent.

Fandorin's probe into Kokorin's mysterious death is rife with complications and close calls in a variety of illicit Moscow locations. Early on, Fandorin winds up at a poker game in the house of Amalia Bezhetskaya, a mysterious femme fatale with young suitors at her beck and call. But Fandorin's insistent questioning of those present -- especially of Amalia and Count Hippolyte Zurov, a wealthy nobleman -- results in a major melee and a quick dismissal. Then, while interrogating a young acquaintance of Kokorin's at an unsavory nightclub, it's only because of a canny choice in attire that Fandorin is saved from certain death. Later, Zurov's activities fall under the CID's suspicion and Fandorin attempts to learn more by joining the nobleman's regular card game. The evening is spoiled, though, when the two men nearly come to blows over the detective's accusations of possible cheating and misconduct. Only quick thinking, sheer bravado and a newfound talent for bluffing save Fandorin from a demonstration of Zurov's ability to "hit a five-kopeck coin at twenty paces, let alone a forehead."

Afterwards, Zurov's anger turns to admiration and in a quixotic gesture, he hands over a letter recently written by Madame Bezhetskaya and originating from London's Winter Queen Hotel. How is this letter connected to the Kokorin case? Hoping to find out, Fandorin sets off for England's capital, where he uncovers evidence hinting at the involvement of high-ranking officials from Russia, Britain and Brazil in a major conspiracy to overthrow his country's current tsarist regime. Not only does the CID op nearly lose his life, but his eventual savior proves to be the very Count Zurov whom he'd tangled with in the gambling parlor! When Fandorin, in a confused and addled state, wonders what prompted Zurov's altruistic display, the nobleman offers a long-winded summary of the qualities that make Fandorin a useful comrade:

"Do you think I gave you Amalia's address just like that, without thinking about it? No, brother Fandorin, there was an entire psychology behind it. I took a liking to you, a terribly strong liking. There's something about you ... I don't know, perhaps you're marked in some way. I have a nose for people like you. It's as if I can see a halo above a man's head, a kind of faint radiance. They're special people, the ones with that halo. Fate watches over them -- it protects them against all dangers. It never occurs to the man to think what fate is preserving him for. You must never fight a duel with a man like that -- he'll kill you. Don't sit down to play cards with him -- you'll be cleaned out, no matter what fancy tricks you pull out of your sleeve."

For all of this heady praise, Fandorin is no two-dimensional cartoon. Yes, he may have a healthy amount of luck in his favor, but he also knows what questions to ask. His sleuthing skills are demonstrated as he assembles the increasingly confusing pieces of this story's puzzle into a whole, revealing the depth and extent of the plot against Russia's regime. Fandorin is also not afraid to be scared, show his emotions, or even fall in love, as he does with a lithe young beauty named Lizanka Koloksteva, who is connected to the very foundation of the conspiracy. Still, Fandorin doesn't lack for eccentricities and flaws. He is a little too obsessed with looking good (his most prized possession is an extremely expensive Lord Byron waistcoat), and he is occasionally led astray by red herrings of his own making -- for instance, when he interprets a document in an erroneous fashion, which leads to a wild goose chase or two.

The strength of Fandorin's character, plus Akunin's assured prose, overcomes some storytelling and plot issues. Although Fandorin's presence in the investigation is explained, it still seems somewhat farfetched that a young man of limited status would be granted so much leeway by the police in such a sensitive inquiry. Also, the tone of this novel changes as events transpire; it's as if Akunin isn't totally certain what type of book he's writing -- is it a Sherlock Holmesesque mystery, a historical thriller or a conspiracy novel? Although plot transitions in these pages can be awkward, Fandorin holds the pieces together and maintains the reader's focus.

* * *

When evaluating a novel that's been translated from a foreign language, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain what should be credited to the original author and what is the translator's responsibility. It seems that Akunin's own voice comes through very distinctly here and that the translator, Andrew Bromfield, has successfully captured the novel's historic backdrop as well as Fandorin's humor and energy. However, Bromfield has a rather distracting habit of footnoting words at nearly every turn. In keeping with the time period, the characters often use phrases from German and especially French -- the language of the Russian nobility. I'm not certain that footnoting each of these phrases was necessary; the practice often took me out of the story, my eyes having to wander down the page to see what the translator had indicated. It may have been more prudent to interpret the expression in English, and simply indicate that the characters are speaking in another language. Or, better, to have kept the phraseology as it was and let the reader infer what the expression means by the context of the sentence.

Ultimately, the overall success of The Winter Queen is due to the vibrancy of its setting (which drips of nostalgia for an earlier time), the cleanness of its prose and the magnetism of its protagonist. Boris Akunin's first novel will likely appeal not only to crime fiction fans, but also to those who appreciate well-crafted historical fiction. Erast Fandorin is a most appealing sleuth, whose Russian viewpoint and sensibilities are something different from the usual American or British detective fare. In this respect, he bears some resemblance to Precious Ramotswe, star of The Kalahari Typing School for Men and previous entries in Alexander McCall Smith's wildly popular #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Odds seem good that Akunin will be the next detective to capture readers' fancy en masse. If so, it will only be a matter of time before the entire Fandorin Cycle is translated -- the sooner, the better. | May 2003


Sarah Weinman works as a bookseller and is completing her master's degree in Forensic Science. She has written articles and reviews for Tart City, Shots magazine and Books 'n Bytes. A Canadian by birth and inclination, she now lives in New York City.