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.