264 pages, Random House
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I know, I know... I've come to the party several years too late. Boris Akunin's novels featuring his heroic nineteenth century Russian detective Erast Fandorin have been widely celebrated for the best part of a decade. How I've managed to remain ignorant of them until now is a bit of a mystery to me. Friends have recommended them to me and told me how they thought Fandorin's adventures would be right up my street. I've seen them in the bookshops and have always considered them as a possible next-book-to-read but for some strange reason, I've never sat down and read one until now. Perhaps it is because I'm spending too much time reading dreck like “Gargoyle Girls of Spider Island”...
For those of you, like me, who have somehow not heard of “The Winter Queen”, the first book in a long running series, let me fill you in. Erast Fandorin is a naïve but almost painfully enthusiastic young clerk in Moscow's Division Three (kind of like a nineteenth century Russian equivalent of CID). Tired of trawling through mountains of paperwork, Fandorin leaps at the opportunity to investigate the suicide of the son of a wealthy industrialist in a busy public park. He delves into the case with youthful vigour and soon discovers that there is a sinister organisation behind the young man's death. To reveal any more of the plot would be to spoil it but Fandorin's adventures take him to London and back and involve breathless chases, deadly duels, mysterious women, cunning disguises and countless narrow escapes.
“The Winter Queen” is a fantastic adventure story that won't fail to entertain fans of the crime / thriller genre. However, what sets the book apart from many others is Boris Akunin's totally adorable central character. Whilst undoubtedly very intelligent and highly perceptive, Fandorin is wonderfully flawed in many ways. As a young and inexperienced detective, it is his staggering naïvety that really strikes the reader. His understanding of the world around him is limited and much of his success in his initial investigations comes from pure dumb luck more than anything else. Polite and well-mannered but innocent to the point of being pretty clueless, Fandorin blunders from witness to witness, unravelling the increasingly complicated mystery by accident. Despite his lack of experience, we know Fandorin isn't stupid and his wide-eyed wonderment is so thoroughly endearing that we can't help but root for him.
The novel really takes off when Fandorin receives an unexpected promotion and is thrust headlong into the murky world of espionage. From this point on, we see the youthful hero begin to grow in both confidence and ability. Such unambiguous yet believable character development is sadly lacking in many modern thrillers and it is so refreshing to see how Akunin gives his protagonist the space to develop as an individual within the novel's relatively short length. By the end of the book, Fandorin's experiences have shaped him in a way that will no doubt come to bear upon how he behaves in subsequent adventures.
Originally written in Russian, the novel's translation is bound to be lacking some of the intricacies the author intended in his mother-tongue. Still, the translation makes an effort to capture the essential Russian-ness of the text, making Moscow of 1876 very alive and believable even to those unfamiliar with the customs and traditions of Eastern Europe. Most importantly, the pacing of the text does not appear to have been affected as is so often the case when switching from one language to another.
With enough twists and turns in the plot to keep most readers guessing, a cracking pay-off at the novel's climax and a splendid cliff-hanger at the close (which has echoes of Ian Fleming's “On Her Majesty's Secret Service”), “The Winter Queen” has all the makings of a classic thriller. Boris Akunin's novel is both exciting and utterly charming. I can't wait to read Erast Fandorin's next adventure to see what Akunin has in store for him.
Hereward L.M. Proops