My New Favorite Detective: Erast Fandorin and The Winter Queen

I have a degree in International Relations and History and specialized in Russian/Eastern European Studies. Early on when I was a bookseller I came across an Advanced Reader’s Copy of The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin. A modern author writing about late Imperial Russia. I was very intrigued. Due to a packing mistake five years ago, I only rediscovered it last weekend. I cannot decide if I am grateful for my error or annoyed, since I now have another great series to follow.

The story’s opening, which includes a brilliant nod to The Master and Margarita, sets the stage for the novel. A seemingly delirious young man shoots himself in the middle of a park for no apparent reason. Fandorin takes an interest in the incident after his boss reads the details in the police blotter. It is not long before Fandorin encounters a femme fatale, jealous lover, a lovely witness, not to mention a cast of menacing henchmen. The case takes the young hero from Moscow to London in pursuit of the truth, which is as strange as the suicide that began the investigation.

In Erast Fandorin, Akunin has created a detective unlike any I have ever read. He is clever, but young (20 years old) and naive. He has a gentleman’s background, but family circumstances meant he had to make his own way in the world. What I like the most is that he is real. He is not steps ahead of criminals, he works the details out as he goes along, which costs him a great deal. The pace of this mystery is pitch perfect. Akunin takes his time with character development. As rewarding as Fandorin’s investigations will surely be in other books, I think seeing (well, reading) as he changes with age and experience will be almost as enjoyable as the mysteries themselves.

The Winter Queen is one of the best mysteries I have read. Period. I am eager to read all the entries in the series that have been translated and am glad to know there are more out there still working their way stateside. Andrew Bromfield did a wonderful job with the translation, an often unappreciated aspect of translated novels. The prose is smooth and almost poetic, some translations clunk along and do no credit to the original writer.

I did some reading on Akunin (pen name of Georgian academic Grigory Chkhartishvili) after I finished. He noticed in post-Soviet Russia, people were clamoring for mysteries of any kind, but the offerings were usually quite salacious. After a little investigating of his own, he concluded there were sixteen types of mysteries- and he would write one of each featuring Fandorin. The White Queen was his foray into Conspiracy mysteries. I, for one, am excited to read what he does with the other fifteen.