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by Boris Akunin
Random House, May 2003
245 pages
ISBN: 1400060494

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This is the first in a series that now stretches to ten in the adventures of Erast Fandorin, a penniless young policeman on his first important case in Moscow in 1876. Erast is trusting, naive, but nobody's fool and his charm, bravery, and quick wits see him through a plot of Baroque complexity, involving a shadowy international conspiracy to rearrange the world. While readers will certainly anticipate most of the twists and turns of the elaborate goings-on, the desire to see what happens next to our hero carries us forward.

 The novel is an ingenious tour de force.  Akunin faultlessly reproduces the tone, style, and plot complexities of thrillers of the period, but thrillers of a superior sort. Some readers (Ruth Rendell among them) have compared Akunin to Ian Fleming, but I was reminded more of Turgenyev or Conrad than the Baroness Orczy. His hero is an attractive young man, whose adventures take him all across Europe, to London and back again, though he remains virtually impervious to the charms of foreign parts. His heart is pure, as his heart should be, and his devotion to duty undeviating.

The translation is remarkable. Although I might quibble with some of Bromfield's editorial choices, he has produced an unstrained, unaffected, and fluent representation of the original Russian text. I was also pleased to see that Random House has done something rare--the translator receives credit on the jacket front, the backflap, and frontispiece. I bet they even paid him, as well they should.

All that said, and despite the fact that I enjoyed the book thoroughly, I doubt I will be looking for the next in the series soon. It provides a fairly specialized kind of pleasure, the historical pastiche that is designed to imitate, not criticize, its original sources. Whatever social comment it contains is very muted indeed. It has achieved immense popularity in Russia, selling in the millions, and may prove equally popular here among the sort of reader who anxiously awaits the next Bernard Cornwell.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, September 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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