Having read a number of the Erast Fandorin books in the original, including this one, I was excited to read it in translation and see how it compared. Reading it in English was great fun and I was impressed by the quality of the translation, which was smooth and unobtrusive while still conveying the old-fashioned flavor of the original. Reading something in a different language is always like reading two different works, but the result here is still a book that’s quite worth reading.
Boris Akunin’s popular Erast Fandorin series has that slightly bizarre flavor that stand-out works often do: is the author serious, or is this a joke? The answer: probably both. English-language readers will most likely find the books, including this one, to be what they might expect if Tolstoy had written the Sherlock Holmes stories, but even stranger, albeit in a good way. It’s both carefully self-conscious and completely sui generis.
The Fandorin series was started in the 1990s, but it is set in the late 19th century and has a distinctly historical, almost steam-punk, feel to it. Although fast-paced, slim little volumes as befits detective novels, rather than the loose baggy monsters normally associated with 19th-century Russian prose, the Fandorin books are still full of carefully reconstructed period detail. Droshkies, Shrovetide bliny, and pre-Revolutionary politics abound. It’s hard for me to say how easy this would be for non-Russians and non-Russianists to follow, but this is meant to be light reading, and for anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with Russian literature, culture, or history, it should be. So if you’re curious, I would say: Jump in! This is not the slog through “War and Peace” some of you might remember from school, but something much more approachable, one might even say sillier.
And it’s true that there are some things that are almost too cliched, even for the genre. Fandorin has a devoted Japanese servant with whom he practices martial arts every day, allowing him to achieve much Oriental wisdom and almost superhuman abilities in hand-to-hand fighting. Most of the female characters throw themselves at the male characters immediately and indiscriminately, chasing after whomever takes their fancy and changing allegiances according to the whims of their hearts. There’s a certain element of parody to both of these elements to the story, as there is with much of the rest of the book, but sometimes it’s hard to know just where the line is being drawn. All in all, though, a very entertaining romp through the mean streets of pre-Revolutionary Moscow, with its most perspicacious detective as a guide.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.