Today I am reviewing the ironically named final book in the Erast Fandorin series, (though the earlier short story and novella collection, Jade Rosary Beads and the trilogy of novellas collected as Planet Water, have yet to be translated into English.) The series begins with a 20-year-old Fandorin in 1876 and this closing title is set between 1918 and 1921; a key period in Russian history. Like Christie’s Tuppence and Tommy Beresford, Fandorin aged naturally through the series and in the last couple of books, he has been having to mentally contend with his growing years.
The previous books running up to this one forewarn the potential for revolution and since this one begins in 1918, the empire is no more. A railway station is the opening point of this book and is used as a microcosm for depicting the current political and social situation as a whole. The law of the jungle is very much in operation and there is a strong appearance of decline. It’s a world you can’t imagine Fandorin fitting into and in a way you would be right, as at the start of the book Masa, his faithful Japanese sidekick, is taking Fandorin back on a train home inside a roll of fabric. A bullet wound to the head put him into a coma in 1914 and during this time Fandorin has been unaware of the changes going on around him. That is until a highway robber enters the train… (Yes, I think an element of fantasy definitely creeps in at this point, which is not unheard of in Akunin’s writing).
The second phase of the book, (though still very early on), is taking place in the unstable melting pot which was Moscow post-revolution and Fandorin is struggling to come to terms with the new world he has woken up into. The desire to retrieve a photograph, left in a stolen medallion leads to Fandorin’s arrival into an anarchist group. This is a rather domestic sort of crime, which contrasts sharply with the national upheaval and it is one which ends in an answer but not much of a resolution, as the Red army violently erupt onto the page.
This in turn leads to the third phase of the book which shows how the Red army are deploying a turncoat officer to act as a mole within a group which is rumoured to be forming, which plans on overturning the Bolshevik movement. This officer is Romanov, who is very much the anti-hero of the piece, someone who has an uncomfortable conscience, but not enough of a one to turn back from what he does and interestingly even his sentimentality, as well as his more cold-blooded decisions, cost lives.
At this juncture I will conclude my synopsis as at this point we’re only a quarter of the way into the book, (it’s over 400 pages long). But suffice to say phases two and three of the book eventually begin to merge together and run towards a poignant and painful ending.
The opening to this book is one of Akunin’s most unusual, and probably his most fantastical. Yet he plays it very well and the reader is willing to bend plausibility. Fandorin’s out of the ordinary “absence” makes his impressions of what Russia had become very interesting to read and it is hard to not feel sympathy as he comes to the conclusion that this is a Russia he can no longer fit into. Nevertheless, a complete retreat from it is harder to achieve than imagined and for the dedicated reader of the series it is easy to look back at Fandorin’s career and feel sharply the fact that he can no longer “save the day” on a grand scale. He can’t even achieve it for individuals. This is very much a Fandorin with his claws clipped, which is noticeable in the way that for most of the book he is not the dashing hero women swoon over. He is not the man in charge, nor the one calling the shots. There is a temporary reprieve for Fandorin from this subordinate, anaemic role, but ultimately he does not recapture his former, near legendary glory. His final book is something of a whimper in comparison to the bang the series commenced with.
One part of my brain can understand how this position for Fandorin is completely appropriate for him and how it ties into the overall pattern of the series and the comments Akunin may wish to make on Russia and its history. But there is also a very big part of me which found this book to be incredibly unsatisfying, and Fandorin’s enfeebled state is one of the reasons. To be honest when you’re engaged and invested in a protagonist you want them to end on a high, and if they are a detective, then you want them to be able to complete their final case satisfactorily. Yet this is where we have a bit of a problem…
Akunin has never rigidly stuck to one type of mystery/crime novel formula. He has shifted from style to style and Fandorin has worked well in them, though there is perhaps a leaning towards espionage and the thriller. Yet in this final tale the mystery element, regardless of its permutation, rapidly drops off in this book. It is a historical novel. It is probably a political one too, and Akunin’s exploration of the political/social climate of the period is deftly portrayed. But a mystery novel it ain’t.
This is in part because of the narrative’s episodic nature. Now crime novels can adopt this approach, but unfortunately in this book it is not used effectively. There is no central plot and what plot there is lacks direction and oomph. The plot idles along like a boat on a slow river and Fandorin has no specific purpose or task to complete. Heck there are even great swathes of pages and chapters where Fandorin is not even present. I also have to sadly say this is the first book in the Fandorin series which I felt was very much overlong, (a comment I make having loved the 500+ paged book 10 in the series, The Diamond Chariot). Such a sparse plot was not made to fill that many pages. My attention wandered a lot and my dedication to reach the end was not rewarded, as the denouement was thoroughly depressing. Definitely a read which leaves you feeling bummed out. Again, I can detachedly see why it had to be, but it is not one which yields reader enjoyment.
And on that note I am going to change my reading order and pick a more upbeat title.