I have already confessed myself to be an admirer of Boris Akunin’s highly entertaining Erast Fandorin series, of which He Lover of Death is the tenth volume to be translated into English. As has often been the case of late, Fandorin himself initially takes a back seat as we become acquainted with the focus of our tale, an orphan who quickly becomes, Oliver Twist style, involved with a gang of petty criminals known as Senka. The action takes place in Khitrovka, an area of Moscow that seems unlikely to have featured on any nineteenth century tourist itinerary. Khitrovka is largely in the control of criminal gangs, which apparently model themselves on suites of playing cards, with a King, a Queen, a Jack, and so on:
“The ace was like the tsar of bandits, there was one for all Moscow.”
Two particular kings, the Prince and the Ghoul, are currently rivals for the recently vacated role of Ace. Senka attaches himself to the Prince’s gang via an encounter with his queen, the Death of the title, so called because she seems to call death down upon her lovers. Despite this, almost any man who lays eyes on her is immediately entranced, including Senka:
“He could feel her looking him up and down, and he desperately wanted to take a look at her from close up, but he was afraid – even without looking at her he was feeling hot one minute and cold the next.”
Even Fandorin cannot resist her charms, but, regarding herself as cursed, she has decided only to allow evil men to love her – her refusal to pay Senka any notice reflects not only his youth but the kernel of goodness inside him that develops over the course of the novel.
While Senka does not narrate the novel, the narrative voice is clearly his. It seems likely that this has been the most difficult of Akunin’s novels for his regular translator Andrew Broomfield (though Leviathan required six different voices). Broomfield peppers the narrative with dated slang in an attempt to reproduce Senka’s accent. The first page alone has: chewing the fat; bint; swanky; and fancy broad, among others. Similarly we see events from Senka’s viewpoint: Masa is “a Chinee or some kind of Turkestani” (he’s Japanese); Fandorin is, on first acquaintance, “the dandy”, and later Mr Nameless. Not everything works. Frequent references to “collidors” I took to be a misprint of Franzen like proportions until Senka begins to take lessons to improve himself:
“No, Semyon Trofimovich, in cultured society they don’t say collider, it should be corridor.”
Though not on this occasion, Senka’s perspective does much to add humour to the narrative. The various disguises Fandorin convinces him to wear – beggar, Jewish imbecile, gangster’s moll – are particularly amusing. His youth and ignorance allow the reader’s understanding to develop alongside: he becomes a Watson like figure to Fandorin’s Holmes as he tries to keep up with an intelligence that is always one step ahead, for example when he thinks he can read letters between Fandorin and Death undetected:
“There was no address on the envelope, and it wasn’t even glued shut. ‘That is so you will n-not have to waste any time b-buying a new one,’ Mr Nameless explained. ‘You’ll read it anyway.’ “
The plot is driven by a hidden store of silver rods, once used to mint coins. The original discoverer of the rods is murdered, leaving Senka as the only person who knows where they are. When he begins to sell them, those around him also meet with rather gruesome ends one by one. As the majority of characters are killers, there is no shortage of suspects. Fandorin (and Akunin) resolves matters through a Poirot-like gathering of all them all, though in a cellar rather than a drawing room. This is not simply a dramatic way to reveal the killer, but a method of dealing with the problem that all the suspects are in fact, killers, and the discovery of which one is responsible for these particular deaths will not absolve the others. Suffice to say that justice is achieved with some panache. If you are not already enjoying these adventures, then you should be.