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The Sunday Times (UK)
May 11, 2003
book review
Fiction: The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin trans by Andrew Bromfield

by Boris Akunin trans by Andrew Bromfield
Weidenfeld 9.99 pp320

The Winter Queen was Elizabeth of Bohemia, of whom it was asked, . . . if she were not designd / Theclipse and glory of her kind?

The Winter Queen of Boris Akunins historical crime mystery novel the first in a series highly acclaimed in his native Russia is clearly not designed the eclipse and glory of anything much, for it is a London hotel, somewhere in the inelegant neighbourhood of the Old Vic. (Unlike many writers from the continent of Europe, Akunin is good on English names: Dunster and Dunster for a Victorian tour company, Cunningham the spy, and the felicitously Dickensian Morbid for a femme fatales butler.) Erast Fandorin, Akunins detective, has oddly been compared to James Bond. A more apt analogy might be to call Akunin the Russian Ian Fleming: his novel, an adventure involving a good deal of that game of chance he slyly calls American roulette, features abduction, villains, beautiful women and, of course, espionage. It opens with a Moscow student shooting himself in front of a young girl and in full view of other people walking in the Alexander Gardens. The subsequent investigation is undertaken by Detective Inspector Xavier Feofilaktovich Grushin with the assistance of Fandorin, his extremely young sidekick.

Fandorin, handsome, tall and with a pale complexion, wears a fashionable corset called the Lord Byron. No doubt this was an enhancement to the figure that even good-looking, slender 20-year-olds laced themselves into in 1876, for Akunin has thoroughly researched his period and sometimes lets it show. The reader is treated (and Akunins accomplished writing is a treat) to a fine summary of the marvels of Bells apparatus, the recently invented telephone.

Why, its like something from The Thousand and One Nights, says Fandorin. He is equally delighted at being equipped with a tiny Belgian handgun to replace the Smith & Wesson he bought in London. Carmen is the latest opera, the pop music of the day; Dostoevsky has just published The Possessed; and, with aniline dyes recently discovered, mauve is the new black.

Fandorins search for a solution to the mysterious shooting leads him to Amalia Kazimirovna Bezhetskaya, a Cleopatra look-alike, whose name and those of others, with the inevitable patronymic included, could have proved a problem for non-Russian readers but on the whole do not (happily, a list of dramatis personae, so dear to the hearts of 19th-century Russian novelists, is omitted, although Akunin has included an unnecessary table of ranks).

Russias great writers tend to make us think that all its literature must have a gloomy or tragic cast. But The Winter Queen is light-hearted and written by a man with a well-matured sense of fun. Although Akunins world is Flemings a century back in time, his style and outlook are not, and it is a pleasant surprise to find him friendly and indulgent to his readers. The fearless Bond was nothing if not sophisticated; Fandorin is naive, anxious to learn and often frightened. Forced to take to his bed after being stabbed, he borrows a bottle of medicine from his landlady to emphasise the graveness of his injury when his chief comes to see him (unfortunately, it turns out to be a remedy for piles, which Grushin finds mystifying in one so young).

Grushin gravely tells Fandorin that the international conspiracy they are uncovering will make the French guillotine seem no more than an idle piece of mischief. The English are involved, because Queen Victoria and Disraeli are dissatisfied with the gold of Africa and the diamonds of India and (shades of recent Middle East rumours) dream of getting hold of the oil of another power.

Akunin displays his knowledge of Victorian London, but with no more conscious showing-off than would an English-speaking writer immersed in his place and period. Seated in the foyer of the Winter Queen hotel, Fandorin watches the comings and going of suspect visitors through a hole in a copy of The Times. A poor little boy who doesnt even understand what hes mixed up in, he falls once more into the hands of Amalia, and gets himself tied up in a sack and thrown in the Thames. From this he escapes rather too easily and embarks on a chase across Europe, its object being to get to Russia in advance of a letter posted in London.

Back in Moscow, he learns the aim of the conspiracy and, since he knows the identity of the arch- conspirator, all seems to be solved, even the secondary meaning of Akunins title. As in all good crime novels, though, the detective and his readers then turn out to have been the victims of a multiple deception. As in all good international conspiracy thrillers, a series of climaxes culminates in a major shock.

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