by Boris Akunin
352 pages, Random House
Review by Kate Kasserman
Confession: I miss those nineteenth-century Russian writers. I wish they hadn’t all gone and died. Is it worth loving anything in the world when I know that my love lacks the strength to yank a single small Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Nikolai Gogol out of the moldering grave and plop him back to work at his desk? I wonder sometimes.
Be that as it may, I have kept half a wounded eye on Russia’s popular literature, hoping that one day lightning might strike again (literature, not my eye). Years of waiting didn’t seem to be paying off; the dismal Sergei Lukyanenko almost made me give up in despair. I started to fear that delicious hot/cold/grotesque/romantic/brutal philosopho-psycho élan might have – well, not vanished, but perhaps been sublimated into tweets (that I cannot read, as I have no Russian). Ah well; I took a long swallow of icy vodka for sustenance and endured my disappointment.
And then came Boris Akunin. (This is the pseudonym for a certain Grigory Chkhartishvili – and now you know why he needs a pseudonym.)
Akunin writes genre fiction. He does not write literature, except in the meta-meta sense that he is, by his assertion, trying to cover in the course of his project (may it never end!) every subtype of crime/mystery story. (Anybody who takes on the name B. Akunin obviously has some meta-meta leanings, but these are largely absent from his novels.) His books are set in late nineteenth-century Russia, and, despite quite a few clearly modern elements, almost feel as if they could have been written then. Special Assignments is the sixth book in the Erast Fandorin series, and it comprises two long novellas linked loosely by Jack-themed antagonists (of Spades and the Ripper) and the introduction of Anisii Tulipov, a painfully sincere, down-on-his-luck naïf whom Fandorin takes under his wing as an assistant.
Anyone who has followed the series is well aware that Fandorin himself started out as just such a naïf (although a considerably better-looking one than Tulipov). He is certainly one no longer: fame, respect, well-honed skills, the confidence born of a long string of successes, money, wicked Japanese martial arts ability, other people’s hot wives – he’s seriously set.
This could make my dear Fandorin a little dull, for all that one would always want him on one’s side. Overwhelming superiority lacketh a certain narrative tension. And in fact now that Fandorin has come into his own, Akunin spends considerably less time following the thoughts of our protagonist and considerably more in the minds of secondary and even tertiary characters as each story unfolds. The vivid detail with which he renders the supporting cast and the red-blooded thumping pace of the plots prevent this technique from feeling disjointed or distracting. When Fandorin does move to center stage, it is either because he is struggling (he is not the only cleverkins in the world, after all, and he still has a heart) or because he is about to do or say something that we REALLY want to see.
The first novella in Special Assignments, The Jack of Spades, is a twisty, light-hearted caper in which the bulk of the ingenuity is demonstrated by the not-so-villainous conman Momos in his various mercantile-cum-fun-generating endeavors. Momos probably could have carried on indefinitely with his cheerful peripatetic grifting lifestyle in unmolested peace if he hadn’t been so delighted with himself that he decided to scam the governor (and Fandorin’s protector) Prince Dolgorukoi to see whether he could get away with it (yes, Momos can get away with it – except insofar as his spoils come with the free bonus of putting Fandorin on his tail). The fun here is watching the characters writhe and scheme, and seeing just how nervy Momos will get (quite) – you never really doubt how the story is going to end, but the scenery along the way is fantastic, and filled with plenty of unexpected turns. The pimply, big-eared Tulipov even gets some smokin’ con-girl action!
In contrast – heavy contrast – the second novella, The Decorator, starts out right nasty and grows only darker. A deeply unpleasant murder reminds Fandorin (fresh from a recent stay in London) of Jack the Ripper – and as he investigates, he learns that the Moscow murder he’s trying to solve is not the first of its kind in the city. It’s unquestionably the work of a serial killer who Fandorin thinks is Jack himself.
It’s hard to find much new territory to mine in serial killers and JTR in particular, and while the killings and the murderer’s internal ruminations are appropriately vile, the interest lies not so much in the how of it all (as with the prior novella) but rather the effect that the investigation has on Fandorin and everyone else involved – and also, the who. We are presented with a number of viable prospects for that honor – failed doctors, revolutionaries, butchers, grave-diggers, and so on, all with their own stories – as well as plenty of red herrings, some subtle and some slap-you-in-the-face.
I am not spoiling anything by saying that Fandorin comes out on top in the end. Fandorin always does come out on top, at least reasonably so – you can trust him to figure out what happened and either to fix it or keep it from happening again (at least in his neck of the woods). But his wins are never perfect. The law of Akunin-world goes thusly: when you succeed, you still fail. But the converse doesn’t hold: when you fail, you don’t succeed, darling. Organize your efforts accordingly – and live with the amusement, or the undying pain, as the situation dictates.
The price paid in The Decorator is sickening in many levels – and I will not say more than that on the topic, because it is best to go into it blind. So that you can feel like you’ve been smacked on the head with a hammer! And drained of blood! In America, for these circumstances, we generally “smile when we say that.” Akunin makes it beautiful.
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