Source: Review Copy (Weidnfeld & Nicolson)
Regular readers of the blog will know that an author I often recommend to people is Boris Akunin. I came across his work a number of years ago, taking a chance on his first Erast Fandorin novel, The Winter Queen, which I found to be a heartbreakingly brilliant book and I was determined to read the others in the series. A lucky Oxfam find meant that this didn’t take me too long and even then I moved on to his equally excellent Sister Pelagia trilogy. Of course the downside to blasting through the 13 works of Akunin translated into English meant that I then had none left to read and it remained that way for quite a few years. So I was ecstatic when I saw last year that in 2017 All the World’s a Stage was going to be translated. Ecstatic, excited and actually a little bit anxious. After all this time would I still love his work?
For those new to the Erast Fandorin series a brief introduction: The series as a whole is set in the 19th and 20th century, mostly in Russia but also in other places such as England, Japan and Turkey. Fandorin initially begins in the Russian police force, but then soon becomes more of a freelance operative solving crimes and pitting himself against tremendous adversaries, though not without great cost to himself at times. A few books into the series he gains a lifelong friend in Masa. Today’s read is set in 1911 and is the 13th published work in the Fandorin series, (as two novellas earlier in the series have been published as one book). Technically there is a 12th publication, The Jaded Rosary, between today’s text and The Diamond Chariot, the last book to have been translated. This collection of short stories has not yet been translated though. I’ve also read that there is a spin off series, which has not been translated yet either, featuring Nicholas Fandorin, the grandson of Erast, who is a modern day historian. In addition there are two one off stories featuring the twins of Erast, which have time travelling plots. For a reader new to the Fandorin series, I’d definitely recommend if possible reading them all in order as you get more out of it that way, in terms of how the characters change, grow and develop. But if 11 books seems a bit too wieldy, then I’d suggest reading the first three or so and then jumping to book 10, The Diamond Chariot before reading today’s book.
So what’s today read about?
This is a series where Fandorin naturally ages, as in the first story he is a young 20 something. Now though in book 13 he has reached his mid-fifties and the book opens with Fandorin coming to terms with his ever increasing age, but also his plans to maintain physical and intellectual agility. Of course with all this build-up of Fandorin’s prowess you know he is going to fall at some point in this book…
Initially it seems as though Fandorin will be getting involved in solving a terrorist act, involving the murder of a Russian government minister, yet the plot takes a radical alternative direction when Fandorin answers the phone and as a favour to an old friend becomes in embroiled in the world of the theatre, in particular the troupe working in the Noah’s Ark theatre company. He is asked to look into what is terrifying an actress named Eliza Altairsky-Lointaine and due to the narrative switching points of the view, the reader soon has an insight in to this matter. Alas Fandorin does not, who is left trying to understand who is menacing Lointaine with snakes, vandalising theatre property with bizarre and increasingly sinister references to a ‘benefit performance’, oh and bumping off ardent suitors of Lointaine in ways which look like suicides. So you know just the usual everyday conundrums… Though it seems Fandorin’s biggest problem will be grappling with his own feelings, which seem to have come boldly alive again after so many years of schooling himself in operating in a rational and emotionless manner, bringing the series back full circle almost to the first book in the series.
So from this brief synopsis you may think that the reader knows too much and has it all figured out before Fandorin, who is certainly portraying as a much more vulnerable and fallible version of himself. But beware! Not everything is what it seems and this reader was certainly fooled as to what was going on and who was orchestrating it all. Equally I know that romance elements in mysteries are not always appreciated, as in fairness they can often be added in an overly predictable and perfunctory way. Yet again I would say that is not the case here. Yes there are typical Jane Austen like misunderstandings, but the way this component is intertwined into the narrative is far more natural and organic in Akunin’s hands. I think this is because that Akunin is not wholly a mystery writer, as his bibliography attests to. Whilst with all genre fiction there are formulaic parts, I find with Akunin that he never lets his style go stale, stagnant or static. The only way I can think to describe it at the moment is that there is an evolutionary skill to his writing style and that he is comfortable writing across many genres, (as the appendix to today’s read shows – I’ll say no more…)
Although the Fandorin series is a historical one I find that Akunin’s work, like Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 series, speaks to our current culture and political/social climate. In this book this is most strongly felt in the opening which considers terrorism as a political action and how it should be responded to, in particular examining ethical implications. Furthermore, corruption at the job is also a disease infecting the culture Fandorin is in. In the hands of some writers these themes would be overdone and belaboured over far too many pages, standing detached from the rest of the plot. Once more this is not the case with Akunin who weaves such ideas concisely but powerfully into his story. But then I have always felt that Akunin is great at depicting his settings, in terms of the historical time period, the changing cultures at that time, the technological advancements such as the rise of the cinema and its tensions with theatre, politics and location – yet without bogging the reader down in immensely descriptive paragraphs which send you to sleep.
Fans of the theatre and its milieu in fiction will be pleased to know that Akunin recreates such a setting deftly, especially the members of the theatrical troupe, with the tensions that so easily arise between them, as well as the way it becomes hard to separate the members off stage, from the character parts they act on stage. Like with so many of the Fandorin novels this story runs the fall gamut of emotions: sadness, laughter, joy etc., for the reader as well as the characters. For me it seems impossible to not become emotionally involved in the book, hence my suggestion of reading the books in order.
So unsurprisingly this book gets a big thumbs up from me and it was definitely worth the wait. I would like to make a point of also congratulating the translator of the work, Andrew Bromfield, who has translated this book so well. Not knowing Russian I can’t comment on the accuracy, but what I do know is that he makes every sentence a delight to read. I don’t often say this about a book, but the prose is beautiful, making you to want to read it slowly rather than race through it at 90 miles an hour. This is a mystery novel which gives you more than a mystery, yet avoids the pitfall of overwhelming a mystery plot with dull padding.
All there is left to say is that I am almost feeling bereft now that I have once more run out of English copies of Akunin’s work. So feel free to cheer me up by telling me more of the works are being translated soon?
Post Script: Managed to cheer myself up by some further googling and found that Black City the next novel in the Fandorin series will be appearing next November.