When Boris Akunin began the adventures of Erast Fandorin with The Winter Queen, he set out quite deliberately to write each novel in a different style. The second, Turkish Gambit, was an Ian Flemingesque spy story; the third, Leviathan, owed much to Agatha Christie. In speaking about his work he is astonishingly systematic: the Sister Pelagia novels (which have also been translated into English) are more ‘literary’ than Erast Fandorin, the Nicholas Fandorin novels less so. He has also undertaken a project to write a series of novels each of a different genre.
Admiration of this playfulness is probably a prerequisite of enjoyment. The reader should not expect a story in which we can safely identify with our protagonist until the mystery is solved. Fandorin does not even appear until we are more than seventy pages in, and then is only identified by the reader’s knowledge from previous volumes of his “slight stammer”, the “squat, solidly built Oriental” who follows him, and his Holmesian manner of deduction:
“You walked in without ringing or kn-knocking. So you must have come to see someone you know. That is one. You see strangers here but you don’t ask after the occupant of the flat. So you already know that he is dead. That is two…”
Instead the centre of the narrative is a young girl, Masha Miranova, newly arrived in Moscow from the country in pursuit of her urban and (so she thinks) urbane lover, ‘Harlequin’. This is well-judged as it allows Akunin to present the city to us with all the detail of a new-comer’s eye. Also, we can be amused by Masha’s attempts to create a new personality for herself, often explicitly rewriting her diary:
“But, no, I mustn’t write like that…I am not writing for myself, but for art.”
Her tastes and attitudes are also changed to suit:
“She lounged on the downy mattress for a while, phoned down to the ground floor to have coffee sent up, and in celebration of her new sophisticated life, drank it without cream or sugar. It was bitter and unpalatable, but it was bohemian.”
Masha’s narrative is, however, not the only one: we also have a series of newspaper stories and the letters of a reluctant police informer. All three narrators are members of a suicide club in which they enrol under pseudonyms, making it initially unclear which members they are and adding to the general air of mystery. Playful allusions to Russian literature are common in Akunin’s work, and it seems likely that he intends to satirise the many despairing protagonists, “half in love with easeful Death”, that populate its pages. In fact, I would go further and suggests he takes pleasure in killing so many of them off, instead of allowing them to endlessly threaten their end. Of course, it soon turns out that not all of the deaths are suicide, and those that are have been subject to unnatural levels of encouragement.
She Lover of Death is more humorous (despite its dark subject matter) than many of the previous adventures, and features Fandorin largely in silhouette. It does, however, deliver one of the most tense and thrilling final chapters. Akunin claims he saw a gap in the Russian market: entertainment for educated readers. And that is exactly what these novels are.