My first read of the new year takes me to an old and familiar friend. Today I am up to book 14 in this 16 long series. It begins in 1876, with a young Erast Fandorin (the central protagonist), but now in today’s read the time is 1914 and we have a Fandorin in his late 50’s. The political, social and technological climates have all radically shifted and morphed in the interim, yet the length of the series prepares the readers for such changes, though not necessarily Fandorin.
The books’ style changes and varies over the course of the series, though in the main they do sometimes lean more towards the thriller. In the case of this book, I would describe it as a political thriller.
The book opens dramatically and with a confession. The officious General Lombadze has planned to catch the terrorist code named Odysseus, in an attempt to kill the Tsar. To give him enough rope to quite literally hang himself, the General has surreptitiously provided him with a nifty weapon and access to the royal accommodation. The only problem is, is that the General can’t figure out where Odysseus is… Anyone see a problem with this? Fandorin is called into help, yet pages later it turns out the Tsar was not in danger, but Colonel Spiridonov, commander of the Tsar’s bodyguard, who ends up dead. Infuriated and insulted by falling into such a trap, Fandorin uses what meagre clues he has to follow Odysseus’ trail to Baku, the Black City. The only downside to this is that Fandorin’s estranged wife is filming there… Of all the traps he has faced, an imprudent marriage seems to be the one he fell mostly roundly into. Fandorin’s life is in danger from the moment he gets off the train and a one armed assassin is soon added to the list of people Fandorin wants to deal with. Further danger sees Fandorin without his usual helplines and instead he has to find aid from unlikely sources. But with kidnap, shootings and many dead ends, will Fandorin be able to foil Odysseus?
Now regular readers will know that a political thriller is not usually my cup of tea, yet I have found once more that in Akunin’s hands it definitely is. He has mastered the ability to write such a book as a combination of philosophical reflection with a novel of action. Such a combo doesn’t sound like it should work, but weirdly it does. The infusion of Japanese culture and attitudes is part of this mixture, yet is perfectly grounded earlier in the series. In this latest book we see Fandorin working on the discipline of diary (nikki) writing, a feature Akunin uses effectively in the book in terms of giving the reader certain information, but also as a plot device and source of a sneaky clue. Yet for readers who are action/adrenaline junkies, there is plenty of fighting to be had and Fandorin’s opportunities to use speed boats, motorcycles, cars and go into casinos, did occasionally make me think of James Bond.
Though as a historian, the author makes this a book more than its plot events. The transitioning nature of Russian life and culture is an intrinsic part of the story’s value. The cover of this edition immediately flags up the changing and clashing of the old with the new – with a contrasting man on a horse with pylons in the background. I liked how during Fandorin’s journey to Baku, nature and evidence of the oil industry are paralleled or mistaken for one another. Understandably the effects on a location of a rapid industrialisation form part of the book’s commentary, in particular the difficulties of many cultures trying to coexist in the same place and interestingly these changes are intertwined with notions of the West and its infiltration of Russian life. Strikes within the oil and transport industries equally play an important part in the story.
However, this book is no sociological text book, as the personal remains at the forefront, especially when it comes to changes in Fandorin’s personal life. Moreover, we see Fandorin’s personal response to the changes happening around him, a response which perhaps shows his increasing age. Fandorin has never been a simple hero figure and this tale is no different, with Fandorin’s fallibility costing him dearly. Though interestingly he himself sees how his life’s work has turned him into a ‘monster’ in some respects, despite his code of ethics. I like how even after 14 books, Fandorin is still a character whose personality becomes ever more intricate. Yet, there are also a number of light hearted moments and we see that there are worse ordeals than death for this ‘inveterate dandy.’
The last few pages of the book produce a strong finale, which make you all the more eager to find the final two books in the series. This story of cat and mouse, (though which is which is up to debate), is a dangerous one to dip into, as a plan to read just a few chapters, quickly turns into, reading for the next few hours, turning pages at a rapid rate of knots.
Calendar of Crime: November – (6) Original Publication Month
P.S. For those familiar with the series and with Fandorin, one thought I have had, is that ironically, Fandorin’s life has more parallels with the Greek Odysseus than the actual terrorist named after him.
See also: All the World’s A Stage (2017)