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.

The State Counsellar

3 August, 2012

The State Counsellor by Boris Akunin is the sixth book in his popular historical mystery series featuring Erast Fandorin, the enigmatic Russian man-about-town and agent with his trusty Japanese servant Masa.

In his sixth book, Fandorin is framed for the murder of the hated General Khrapov who is on his way to Siberia. Knifed on a train, Fandorin is seen fleeing the scene and is promptly arrested as he goes to welcome the deceased general. When it turns out that the mysterious Combat Group is the culprit, Fandorin goes to Moscow to help the police and the secret service, the feared Okhranka, uncover the Combat Group and save Russia from anarchy.

But the Combat Group is led by the steely Mr. Green with vengeance burning in his heart. He sees the world through colours (synesthesia), his own personality turning a steely grey after spending his youth in prison for trying to save his Jewish family from persecution.

Green knew the English meaning of his alias, but he experienced his own colour differently. Everything in the world had a colour, every object and concept, every person – that was something Green had felt since he was a little child; it was one of the special things about him. For instance, the word ‘earth’ was a clay-brown colour, the word ‘apple’ was bright pink even for a green winter apple, ’empire’ was maroon, ‘father’ was a dense purple and ‘mother’ was crimson. Even the letters of the alphabet had their own coloration: ‘A’ was scarlett, ‘B’ was bright lemon-yellow, ‘C’ was pale yellow. Green made no attempt to analyse why for him the sound and meaning of a thing, a phenomenon or a person had these particular colours and no others – he simply took note of this information, and the information rarely misled him. The fact was that every colour also had is own secret meaning on a scale that was an integral, fundamental element of Green’s soul. Blue was doubt and unreliability, white was joy, red was sadness, and that made the Russian flag a strange combination: it had joy and sadness, both of them strangely equivocal. If the glow given off by a new acquaintance was blue, Green didn’t exactly regard him with overt mistrust, but he watched a person like that closely and assessed him with particular caution. And there was another thing: people were the only items in the whole of existence capable of changing their colour over time – as a result of their own actions, the company they kept and their age.

Green himself had once been sky-blue: soft, warm, amorphous. Later, when he decided to change himself, the sky-blue had faded and been gradually supplanted by an austere, limpid ash-grey. In time the once dominant light-blue tones had receded somewhere deep inside, reduced to secondary tints, and Green had become bright grey, like Damask steel – just as hard, supple, cold and resistant to rust.

I think of all the villains in Akunin’s series, Green is the most sympathetic. Although he is a cold-blooded killer hellbent on revenge, there is a suppressed emotional core that he can’t quite erase and this makes for some poignant reading.

I have a soft spot for stories featuring synesthesia as I too enjoy the same effects although mine is constrained to letters and numbers. It’s a pretty handy memory tool.

Russia is going through a tumultous period with seditious groups springing up everywhere protesting against bureaucracy, corruption, segregation and poverty. Akunin’s descriptions of the inner workings of a small rebel cell is interesting, especially discovering the world of collaborators from University lecturers to dissatisfied heiresses and double agents.

This was an thrilling episode in the series and I look forward to reading book number 7, The Coronation.

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.