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Friday, 26 January 2018

Book review - Leviathan (Erast Fandorin #3)

Boris Akunin’s third Erast Fandorin adventure Leviathan was published in 1998, English translation from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2004.  I read and enjoyed his first adventure, The Winter Queen in October, 2004. The second book in the series is The Turkish Gambit.

Fandorin started out as a police detective, and then worked for the secret police, and in this book he’s a diplomat, destined for service in Japan.

Leviathan possesses several idiosyncratic features. It begins with notes from French police commissioner Gauche’s file, regarding the mass murder of ten individuals in a Parisian mansion. Then there’s a medical report concerning the deaths – all but one being poisoned. A statuette of the Indian god Shiva was stolen, together with a painted shawl. The owner of the house, Lord Littleby was bludgeoned to death. Next, we have two press cuttings – one of which reveals that the statuette is found… A single clue suggests that the murderer would be a passenger on the luxury British steamship Leviathan sailing from Southampton to Calcutta. Gauche booked passage.

Gauche deduces that the criminal he seeks is one of the following: Sir Reginald Milford-Stokes, exhibiting signs of mental aberration; Mr Aono, a Japanese nobleman, silent and diffident; Mrs Renate Kleber, a pregnant wife of a Swiss banker en route to join her husband; Miss Clarissa Stamp, a newly rich English spinster; Mr Truffo, the ship’s chief physician; Mr Sweetchild, an opinionated Indologist; Mr Boileau, a tea trader and philanthropist; and, finally, the Russian diplomat, Fandorin.

The story is told from the point of view of a number of characters: Gauche himself (third person narrative), Milford-Stokes writing first person to his absent wife, Renate Kleber and Clarissa Stamp (both third person), Mr Aono (printed in two columns sideways on, no doubt to suggest the first person diary entries are written in Japanese [gimmicky, but not distracting]).

To be expected, there are other deaths and suspicion builds. There are revelations, and some poignant tales to tell. Gauche comes across as a bombastic self-important detective (‘It was possible to tell a great deal about a man from his moustache’) (p26) who tends to arrive at the wrong theories, often corrected by the imperturbable Fandorin.

Akunin captures the period – it’s 1878 – and the opulence of the steamship. ‘The breakfast served on the Leviathan was not some trifling Continental affair, but the genuine full English variety: with roast beef, exquisite egg dishes, blood pudding and porridge.’ (p43) He also reveals Mr Aono’s culture with great effect – which is not surprising since under his real name the author is an expert on Japan, has translated Japanese and served as the editor-in-chief of the 20-volume Anthology of Japanese Literature.

He exhibits a fine eye for detail and imagery, too. ‘in the flickering lightning the rain glittered like steel threads in the night sky, and the waves frothed and foamed white in the darkness. It was an awesome night.’ (p188)

The set-up, the mix of characters and the crime itself echo Agatha Christie, and this is not surprising since Akunin apparently set out to write Fandorin novels in every sub-genre of the detective novel. His first was a conspiracy, his second a spy case, his third this Agatha Christie homage, and so on. He has identified sixteen sub-genres, in all, and has written fourteen so far. In addition, he wanted to create different types of human characters. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for Grigol Chkhartishvili (Boris Akunin) makes fascinating reading in itself.

In the entry List of best-selling books the Erast Fandorin series has sold in excess of copies. Typically, a new book in the series sells about 200,000 copies in the first week.

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