Special Assignments: The Further Adventures of Erast Fandorin by Boris Akunin

23 June, 2011

Boris Akunin became a famous bestselling author with the publication of his first novel The Winter Queen featuring the upstanding, eccentric and very clever investigator, Erast Fandorin. Set in Russia during the 19th century, Akunin’s mysteries evoke the era of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Dr. Zhivago, yet mixing the tragedy of the human condition with the fast paced and thrilling chase of the murder mystery. Special Assignments is in fact two novellas, The Jack of Spades and The Decorator.

I loved the first book in the series and carried on reading the rest until I got stuck partway through the fifth several years ago and did not finish it. But after seeing a talk with Akunin a few months ago, I decided to give his Fandorin series another go. There’s just something about a Russian winter that keeps calling one back. So yes, this was my second attempt at Special Assignments and I’m happy to say I finished it fine. I think one of the reasons I found my earlier reading experience so difficult was the different style Akunin gives each book. It wasn’t something I necessarily spotted when I was reading them, but after hearing Akunin explain that he wrote each book deliberately in a different style to appeal to different personalities, it suddenly clicked why there were a couple which I really disliked. Apparently this is the effect Akunin is after. You will love certain volumes and hate others. In some ways knowing this made me want to go out and read all of them again just to see which personality I am.

So, The Jack of Spades is about Fandorin’s pursuit and unmasking of Momos, a brilliant conman who has gone through Russia swindling and making fools of the rich and stupid. It seems that Fandorin may have met his match in Momos when the conman manages to infiltrate his abode causing a rift between Fandorin and his beautiful married lover Ariadna. With the help of his new assistant Tulipov, can he catch Momos in time to prevent him losing Ariadna?

The Decorator is very different in tone to The Jack of Spades and is all above Fandorin and Tulipov trying to unmask a sadistic killer who has been leaving mutilated corpses strewn across wintry Moscow. Fandorin is worried that the corpses of the prostitutes bear a remarkable similarity to the murders in Whitechapel, London, only a few months earlier. Can the Ripper be in Moscow? And more importantly, can Fandorin catch him before tragedy strikes closer to home?

Whereas The Jack of Spades is lighter in tone and reminiscent of a crime caper, The Decorator is much darker because of the subject matter. I mean, we’re talking about Jack the Ripper here. Who can resist that? Akunin’s treatment of both stories is well rounded, full of interesting information both about the society in which Fandorin lives and anything that catches his fancy (including a lot of Japanese trivia as Fandorin’s manservant Masa is Japanese and Akunin is an expert on Japan and Japanese) and with some interesting plot twists.

I only have two complaints. The first is that sometimes it’s a little slow. I’m not sure whether that has to do with Akunin’s writing style or the translation. It’s a smooth and easy read but maybe a little laborious in parts. The second is that even after five books, Fandorin remains a mystery to me. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to find out a little more about him. But then, it is part of his character to remain mysterious, even to his peers. However, that’s not going to stop me pursuing the rest of the series. I’m especially looking forward to The Coronation and The Diamond Chariot, but of course will be reading the rest in their proper order.

Have you read the Fandorin books? And if so, which ones did you like and dislike? I’m curious.

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9 Responses to “Special Assignments: The Further Adventures of Erast Fandorin by Boris Akunin”

  1. Fëanor Says:

    Does Fandorin have a consistent character, though? It seems to me that he is a different person in each book, other than the superficial ability to win games of chance, martial arts, and irresistible attraction for women.

    • sakura Says:

      ‘Irresistible attraction to women’ – yeah, that through me back a bit as there seems to be one per story… I’m not really sure Fandorin has a strong personality or he keeps it well hidden. It’s been a while since I’ve read the others so I can’t remember much. Do you think Akunin changes his personality according to each book?

      • Fëanor Says:

        I’m not sure Fandorin’s personality is quite that fluid. It’s inchoate, almost like he’s not really there. I’ll probably have to re-read the books to analyse deeper… Someday!

        (OT: how is it going with your epics challenge? Any progress on George RR Martin’s? Did you watch ‘Game of Thrones’ on Sky?)

        • sakura Says:

          You should do a Fandorin challenge! I’ll watch from the sidelines;P

          I’m on my 6th Malazan book but haven’t yet started on GRRM’s 2nd. I don’t have Sky so am waiting for the DVD release (yeah, I’m totally uncool). Then I think I’ll start on Clash of Kings. Game of Thrones has had such a brilliant reception so I can’t wait to see it. Have you?

          • Fëanor Says:

            Yup, I watched the series and got into the books directly (they are such doorstops I never felt like reading them before). Am onto the 4th now – can’t put it down but am occasionally frustrated by the cast of millions and often superfluous actions. The TV series is quite faithful to the (1st) book, even if somewhat abridged… Sean Bean, ftw!

          • sakura Says:

            I have heard that Sean Bean is a BIG hit. The Malazan books I’m reading at the moment have a huge cast so I think I’ll be properly equipped to tackle GRRM’s books. Looking forward to reading your posts on the books. You will be posting, right??

  2. Eva Says:

    I had similar worries about whether the style was Akunin’s or the translators, so I found a freely available copy of The Winter Queen in the original Russian online. I didn’t read it all, but I read enough to realise that the translation has a similar feel to Akunin’s Russian.

    I’ve had so-so feelings on the 3 Fandorin novels I’ve read, but then I tried Sister Pelagia & the White Bulldog and loved it. Unfortunately, I just finished the second one (Sister Pelagia & the Black Monk), and a scene offended me so deeply I’m not reading any Fandorin ever again. Not to mention, the plotting was so horribly scattered, and the constant discussions of gender differences tiresome. It’s hard for me to believe the same man wrote both of the White Bulldog and the Black Monk, but then he is an incredibly uneven writer, even in the same book. Bah. Sorry to rant; the book just really angered me.

    • sakura Says:

      I’ve only read the first of the Sister Pelagia books and am sorry to say I wasn’t a fan. I have yet to read the second in the series but it doesn’t sound like it will get any better. Akunin did say he wrote the Sister Pelagia books before the Fandorin ones though. Interesting to hear that the translation is faithful to Akunin’s original prose. Apparently The Winter Queen is soon to be a film so I’m quite looking forward to seeing it next year.

  3. stujallen Says:

    I read murder on the leviathon and was grabbed by it ,I not sure if was tthe transaltion or if it seemed a bit to number if you know what I mean ,x,y,z character doing this cause this and thus this happens ,I would say I d try another but not in a hurry too ,all the best stu


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