I’ve recently finished reading the latest (to be translated) Erast Fandorin mystery – All The World’s A Stage. I’ve talked about this series before, so it’s a good opportunity to review both the series and the latest volume.
Overall, this is one of the best historical-detective mystery series out there. It is intelligent, engaging, and just different enough to be in a class of its own. It’s not surprising that in his home country of Russia, Akunin out-sells JK Rowling.
What to expect
Each novel is written as a different type of mystery. Akunin set out to rectify the low-brow reputation of the mystery genre in post-USSR Russia by writing worthy literature and exploring the wide gamut of sub-genres. Each novel is therefore excellently written as a different type of detective case. While there is continuity in the protagonist’s life between the novels, each is very different in themes and tones.
I’ll include my notes on each volume in the series below.
What I liked
I like the writing style. The prose is intelligent and flowing, the mysteries are complex, and the cast is varied (though those that make repeat appearances tend to die). Fandorin himself is a great character, even though as a main character he still remains an enigma – a tantalising mystery in itself that keeps readers engaged and clamouring to know more.
I love the historical background. Akunin has done his research into Russian culture, mannerisms, environment, personalities, etc. of the late 19th century / early 20th century. Most of the stories take place around Moscow, and Fandorin gets to meet and associate with the people of the times (from the low-life criminals of Khitrovka, to the grand-dukes of the imperial family). In a few cases, Akunin also has Fandorin active around notable events of the era, at times filling in details where history has left us stumped.
Akunin is also a Japanophile, and has Fandorin spend a few years in Japan. While details are sketchy (and we want more! More!), it is clear that he has a great love and deep knowledge of that culture and times.
What to be aware of
Be aware that each of the novel is told in a different style. Besides the obvious (something new and different in each volume), one keyword is ‘told’. They are almost all in 3rd person perspective, and quite often not from the point of view of Erast Fandorin (which is both tantalising and frustrating at times). It’s this distance that keeps Fandorin an enigma, and keeps us coming back to learn more.
Fandorin has a Sherlockian intellect and impressive physical prowess. He is not without his faults (most notably hubris), but as a hero he is certainly a cut above the rest. He also tends to get involved with a different femme fatale in each book. This suits the detective genre perfectly, regardless of modern sensibilities.
While the books are not really related and have few continuing characters, I’d still strongly recommend to read them in order.
Lastly, and this has nothing to do with Fandorin, since these are professional translations (amazingly done by Andrew Bromfield) via a traditional publisher, the price of ebooks and hardcovers is almost the same. The ebooks are also missing some of the illustrations and other typographical effects that are present in the print. My library card got plenty of mileage when reading this series.
Notes on individual volumes
- The Winter Queen
This is the first volume in the series, where we are introduced to a young Erast Petrovich. Don’t worry, by the time the book ends he’ll grow up and age quite a bit.
The theme for this novel is of a young police officer, handed a strange case which draws him deeper into the underbelly of polite society, unravelling a major conspiracy.
One Cannot but love Fandorin, for all his flaws, as he navigates this new world and loses his naïveté. Just be aware that the ending is very Russian.
- The Turkish Gambit
Fandorin finds himself on the front lines of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 in the Balkans (at the siege of Plevna). This is a war story, as Fandorin unravels a spy-vs-spy style of behind-the-lines intrigue and espionage.
- Murder on the Leviathan
This is a classic cozy-mystery, in the style of Agatha Christie. Fandorin is on board a ship to Japan, the set of suspects and location is fixed, and we’re treated to whodunnit style plot twists. A great mix of Christie and Russian culture.
Note that this is one of those books where the ebook really misses out on typographical wizardry. The sections written from the POV of the Japanese character are printed sideways, to mimic Japanese print.
- The Death of Achilles
Back in Russia after his trip to Japan (about which details are frustratingly scant), Fandorin helps the police track down a hired assassin. He is accompanied by his Japanese manservant Masa, and displays some highly unusual, newly acquired skills. Action, drama, and nick-of-time chases keep readers turning pages.
- Special Assignments
Two novellas bound in one, both telling of Fandorin’s work on behalf of Moscow city.
In The Jack of Spades Fandorin is first assisting his patron – Prince Dolgurukoi, governor of Moscow – against some con-men, and is then being subjected to a con himself. As most con-type stories, the tone is light.
The Decorator is a dark and disturbing tale of a serial killer. Expect lots of gore as Fandorin delves into the darkest sides of humanity.
- The State Counsellor
In this political-thriller type mystery, Fandorin is trying to clear his name from an attempted-murder charge by catching the real culprit. One of the better mysteries in the series, it is also notable for Oleg Menshikov movie performance as Fandorin. One cannot imagine the character to look any other way.
- The Coronation
One of my absolute favourites in the series. The story is told in first person from the viewpoint of the majordomo to the imperial house. As with all butlers, he has very distinct view about his charges, about foreigners, and about the ceremonies and events that happen. The plot deals with both the coronation of Nikolai II and of the Khodynka Tragedy that followed.
Part of what makes this a masterpiece is exactly the same reason that makes it frustrating at times. Our protagonist is observed by 3rd parties, his actions described through their viewpoints. We, as readers, want to know so much more.
- She Lover of Death and He Lover of Death
These two novels are intertwined, as can be guessed from the names. While the two mysteries are separate, they happen at roughly the same time. When Fandorin disappears from one book for a few days, he’s busy on the other case – while the other cast continue of their separate paths.
‘She’ is a bohemian, slightly absurd mystery of a death cult. ‘He’ is a tale of low-life criminals and gangs, an almost rags-to-riches treasure hunt. Both have their femme fatales, as well as plot twists.
- The Diamond Chariot
Finally, in the 10th book, we get to hear about Fandorin’s years in Japan. This is a complicated, cross-cultural tale, in two parts. In the first, Fandorin is still back in Russia, protecting the trans-Siberian lines from the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese war. This naturally brings up his past, more than 15 years earlier, when he spent time in Japan. We learn about how he met his servant Masa and how he came by his ninjutsu skills.
- Jade Rosary Beads
Blast and damnation, they skipped this one in the translations. Some of the short stories are supposedly very good (according to my wife, who read them in Russian), but we’ll just have to wait.
- All the World’s a Stage
The latest to be translated. A melodramatic mystery that happens within a theatre company, an older Fandorin is still very much active and subject to wild emotions.
(Minor spoiler alert!) While the prose is as good as ever, and one expects the protagonist to chase red-herrings, there is one cardinal sin in that Fandorin isn’t exactly the one to bring full resolution to the case. Despite that slightly sour note, it’s still a good read, in line with the rest of the series.
- The Black city and Planet Water
The last two Fandorin novels (there won’t be more). Still waiting to be translated.
Should you read these novels? Yes! By all means, if you love historical mysteries these novels are a must read. In fact, since it’s been a few years since I’ve read them, I think I’ll go back and re-read my favourites (Winter Queen, State Counsellor, and The Coronation).
You can find all the Erast Fandorin series on Amazon here. If you love historical detectives I strongly suggest you start reading The Winter Queen soon (that’s what kindle samples are for, after all).