I enjoy reading a good detective novel. I prefer the more “hard boiled” detective, but once in a while I like to read about a more cerebral detective. The most famous of these is, of course, Sherlock Holmes.
Erast Fandorin could well be described as a “Russian Holmes”. He applies logic to his dealings with the criminal mind and always, at least, unmasks his prey. Though, like Holmes, he doesn’t always keep hold of them. Written by Boris Akunin, the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, the Fandorin mysteries have sold more than 18 million copies in Russia alone. The translations are, I believe, faithful – though I have to take that on faith as I don’t read Russian!
Despite being set before the turn of the Twentieth Century, these tales are always thrilling. They show us a Europe before the various wars and revolutions that have helped create the world as we now know it. At that time monarchies were the norm and it was accepted that the monarch’s word was absolute law – all served at their pleasure. It also shows that the world wasn’t very much different: poverty was everywhere, travel around Europe was the norm (despite various border controls it appeared to be easier than now), art, politics, intrigue and international politics were as much in everyone’s minds as they are now.
We first meet Fandorin as a young and naive clerk to the police service. He is eager to make something of himself and is brought to the notice of a young and progressive superior and is enlisted to help with a case where young people are committing suicide in public places. Through this first book we see him fall in love and lose his innocence and naivety in a most brutal fashion. Through the series of books we are shown different parts of Europe, introduced to a war in Turkey and finally discover what became of Jack the Ripper! Throughout this we are taken along with Fandorin and learn how the young naive becomes a cold and ferocious thief taker.
The similarities with Holmes really end with the methods and some of the coldness. We know that Fandorin can love – romantically, fraternally and platonically. He has respect for women – as much of a man of his time can be allowed to. That period was a time of discovery and invention – we are introduced to an early telephone, for example, and learn that the uniqueness of ears and of fingerprints can be of great help to a detective – and the novels never fear to use them as a plot device. Fandorin is a great fan of physical exercise, rising early for stretches, bends and lifts; he learns Japanese martial arts while posted there as a diplomat and returns with a Japanese manservant and new skill.
Akunin clearly has a love and respect for this character. This admiration for his creation carries over into the tales and the adventures can be followed with ease and with a certain respect. If you want a slice of Imperial Russia and a detective who works primarily with his mind, I would recommend this series to you wholeheartedly.