Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Hercule Poirovich

We're used to the idea that the most famous works of Russian literature come from the 19th-century "Golden Age" and the Soviet era. That's why I was so delighted to discover Boris Akunin, a 21st-century literary light from Georgia. His Erast Fandorin mysteries are more Agatha Christie than Andrei Platonov, but that's no bad thing.

These stories are set in 19th-century imperial Russia, with their dashing hero a cross between Flashman and Crime and Punishment's detective Petrovich. I have just read the fourth instalment, The Death of Achilles, which starts with the diplomat Fandorin's return from exile in Japan and the death of the great general Sobolev.

Matters become complicated as the world of high politics and the criminal underworld revolve and increasingly mesh. Fandorin has breath-taking adventures thanks to his martial arts abilities, while he draws ever closer to solving the crime and untangling the mystery behind the general's death with his impeccably logical mind. The plot becomes quite involved but also involving, packed with the shady machinations of both politicians and criminals.

Fandorin is alternately entrancing and exasperating. It is easy to admire his skill with the ladies, and he certainly knows his way around a carriage-chase, but equally his insistent, ever-logical drive for the truth makes him a little robotic (anachronistically). There is nothing noir about him, unlike, say, Ian Rankin's Rebus, so he is never raised into a credible character. He is also a master of disguise, so he is a multitude of characters without ever being one himself.

Akunin (whose real name is Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili and is an eminent figure in modern Russian letters) clearly enjoys playing with his reader. The book is packed with references to the life of Achilles and such literary games - which do in fact emphasise and deepen the characters and story - are Akunin's stock-in-trade. These puns and allusions are there for the close reader, but are much clearer in the original Russian.

Not content with a swashbuckling diplomat, Akunin is also writing one series of mysteries based around the nun Sister Pelagia and another around Fandorin's grandson, a British historian. He is Alexander McCall Smith-like in his prolific ability to write, and with the first four Fandorin novels already in English and 11 more due, there is much to look forward to.

No comments: