The Coronation by Boris Akunin
30 March, 2013
The seventh title in Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin mysteries is The Coronation, a high society mystery. Akunin has stated that he purposely wrote each mystery in the series in a particular manner to fit specific crime sub-genres. Isn’t that just genius? So in this tale, Fandorin’s expertise is requested by the soon-to-be-crowned Czar of Russia himself.
It is 1896 and Moscow is preparing for the new Czar’s coronation. Grand Duke Georgii Alexandrovich travels from St. Petersburg with his family to be part of the celebrations. His household is run like clockwork by his proud, trusted servant Afanasii Stepanovitch Ziukin who speaks fluent Russian, French and German and holds a secret flame for the French governess Mademoiselle Declique. When the Grand Duke’s son is kidnapped by the infamous criminal Dr. Lind, the Czar and his family are in a race against time to catch the criminal before little Mikhail Georgievitch is sent back home in bits all the while maintaining a calm, outward façade to the public. Dr. Lind is after the famed Count Orlov, the huge diamond in the middle of the coronation crown. Will Fandorin catch the wily and barbarous criminal in time? And will Ziukin’s suspicions of Fandorin be appeased?
Although the mystery and kidnapping is central to The Coronation, I particularly enjoyed reading about the daily habits and household mechanism of the Czar’s family. The extravagance, the tight hierarchical structure, the almost military precision of people’s place and career placement. The royal households were run like well-oiled machines with extremely intelligent and meticulous servants who were rewarded generously for their service to the State. Ziukin reminded me very much of Stevens, the English butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, so correct and, dare I say it, rather anal, but burning with a passion for the French governess which he keeps tightly in check. I loved the way that Ziukin is even more snobbish than his employers. His sensitivity and OCD-ness is comical and frustrating and yet shows the depth of his devotion to the family he serves.
Another aspect I found interesting was the whole world of the other family, in this case that of the Grand Duke and the beautiful and politically astute ballerina Madam Snezhnevskaya, his mistress and the mother of two of his children. What is surprising and simultaneously rather gross is that she was also the mistress of his brother, his nephew and even his son. Vomit. But she seems to have made a career of it and is trusted by the royal family to keep its secrets and, in this sense, wields enormous power. Such was life in Russian high society.
The rigorous training of the young royals is also an eye-opener since I always thought they lived a life of boredom, whoredom and hunting. But the training they receive in order to put up a royal mask in public duty is a study in stoicism itself.
I really enjoyed The Coronation and am looking forward to reading the next in the Fandorin series, The She Lover of Death.