She Lover of Death and He Lover of Death by Boris Akunin
18 May, 2016
Your humble servant is no longer in any doubt that a secret society of death-worshippers has been established in Moscow, following the example of several other European cities: a society of madmen – and women – who are in love with death. The spirit of disbelief and nihilism, the crisis of mortality and art and, even more significantly, that dangerous demon who goes by the name of fin de siècle – these are the bacilli of the contagion that has produced this dangerous ulcer.
The eighth book in Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin mystery series follows an impressionable young girl from the tedium of Irkutsk to the bohemian glamour of Moscow with a quatrain in her hand and a small suitcase. Marya Mironova has cast aside her former life and name and is transformed into Columbine, following her lover (or soon to be) Petya whom she has named in her heart, Harlequin. And so begins the part-epistolary She Lover of Death in the form of newspaper clippings detailing the strange phenomena of suicides by young Muscovites, Columbine’s journal entries as she is initiated into a secret society worshiping death and spearheaded by enigmatic Prospero to whom she promptly loses her virginity. As each member of the Lovers of Death yearns to be chosen next, a mysterious stranger with a stammer joins the society under the alias Prince Genji. But as the deaths add up, it soon becomes clear that each Lover of Death is being helped along his or her way. Although Columbine is desperate to meet her lover (Death), her faith in her fellow society members is slowly eroded as she gets closer to Genji who begins to sow doubt on the whole enterprise.
Of course, we know Genji is Erast Fandorin but the emphasis is strictly on Columbine and her dramatic take on her life and prospective death. In some ways She Lover of Death is less about the mystery of who is directing the killings than about the lure of bohemianism and the intense decadence of feeling alive in the face of death. Akunin has previously stated that he is deliberately writing each mystery as to mimic a certain style in the genre. And this volume certainly shows up the romantic allure of death in all its gothic glory which was so popular in fin de siècle European aesthetic. Prospero is reminiscent of Rasputin in his spellbinding ways and allure towards women and as Fandorin gets closer to who is behind the killings, will Columbine be strong enough to shake off her enchantment? As always, Akunin delivers an interesting view of Russian history and culture and the different style in each novel is a bonus boost in keeping us a captive audience.
The next volume in the series, He Lover of Death, is down and dirty Dickensian with a dash of melodrama, the protagonist reminiscent of the Artful Dodger fleeing poverty to join a gang in the Khritrovka district of Moscow. It is here that Senka Skorikov meets and falls in love with Death, the beautiful mistress of the Prince who heads one of the most notorious Muscovite gangs. Death can sway all men and is also the cause of their demise. But this makes her even more irresistible. When Senka stumbles upon a hoard of lost silver, he manages to claw his way out of poverty but in doing so finds himself on the run from the gangs that rule Moscow and corrupt policemen who are out for a cut. It is only when he stumbles upon Erast Fandorin and his Japanese manservant Masa who have returned to Moscow and are independently investigating a number of savage deaths that may have links to the gangs that he has a chance of survival and his life truly changes.
He Lover of Death had a very slow start and I admit it took me a couple of tries to get into this novel. However, the pace picked up after Fandorin turns up as the mystery of the deaths and the origins of the silver hoard are revealed. There are villains aplenty and lots of talk of love and honour. Fandorin, as usual, is as eccentric and mysterious which is why we find him so intriguing and he is as susceptible to Death’s charms as any man. Masa features a bit more in this volume, teaching Senka his Buddhist philosophy and defensive arts. I found their interactions highly enjoyable although the way Akunin reduces Masa’s speech in Russian/English to a stereotypical bad accent began to feel rather offensive. We all know he speaks Russian with an accent so is it really necessary to make is so Fu Manchu-esque? It my have been the norm before but we no longer live in a society that finds this acceptable. I never used to find these things offensive since we all know not all nations are equally cosmopolitan in their immigration policies, however, the internet has opened my eyes to different shades of ignorance and for someone as culturally sophisticated as Akunin, it’s a little disappointing.
Apart from that one annoying detail which occurred a lot since Masa featured a lot in this novel, I still love Akunin’s work. I think he’s creating something playful, informative and well written in a genre that can sometimes feel formulaic. The next volume in the series is The Diamond Chariot set in Japan where I hope we’ll get to find out more about how Fandorin and Masa met. There are still four more volumes available in Russian and the next one is being translated into English. Hurray!