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THE WINTER QUEEN
by Boris Akunin
Random House, May 2003
256 pages
$19.95
ISBN: 1400060494


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This is a 19th century Russian novel with 19th century characters, setting, and even plot written in 19th century style, and as such it's charming. The first sentence reads: "On Monday the thirteen of May in the year 1876, between the hours of two and three in the afternoon on a day that combined the freshness of spring with the warmth of summer, numerous individuals in Moscow's Alexander Gardens unexpectedly found themselves eyewitnesses to the perpetration of an outrage that flagrantly transgressed the bounds of common decency." Pure Chekhov.

Erast Fandorin, novice clerk and civil servant 14th class in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow police, has missed out on his gentry position in life because of a now deceased wastrel father. Fandorin's supervisor, Xavier Grushin, does not think he'll be a success in his job, but decides anyway to use him as an observer in the Alexander Garden suicide case. In quick order Fandorin meets an attractive heiress, Lizanka, questions an important witness, learns about another suicide, gets invited to a party given by a mysterious woman, Amalia, makes friends with the heir of the first suicide and then watches as he is murdered, and then finds his supervisor transferred and replaced by a super achiever, Billing.

Like a matryoshka, the set of dolls within a set of dolls, scene converts to entirely different new scene, and before he knows it, Fandorin is promoted and sent to pursue a suspect who has left for England. Even before he leaves for England, Fandorin angers a devil-may-care Russian noble who is a champion duelist and who challenges Fandorin. Fandorin quickwittedly suggests instead that they play Russian roulette (which apparently in Russia they call American roulette or is author Akunin just having a little fun at our expense?) as being more fair to himself, a man who knows nothing about dueling. But Fandorin loses and now must do the honorable thing and shoot himself to death. But I don't want to spoil anything for anyone.

In England Fandorin meets both new characters and old. There is always a resolution to an old problem and the advent of a new one. Suffice it to say that Fandorin is both a most capable and a most lucky young man. He rolls up one member of the altruistic gang after another, and has to return to Moscow to keep it up. This is a heroic story both complicated and simplistic as only a 19th century novel can be (even though it was written in the very late 20th century). And our hero is given a most worthy opponent, one who seems to live a charmed life and could stand with Holmes's Moriarty.

I doubt that any novelist writing this kind of story about the 21st century could get away with it, but we know it's a pastiche, and we enjoy spotting Dr Frankenstein, escaping from self-appointed altruistic villains, and foiling trick doors and chairs that seem to spring out of nowhere. We like seeing our hero outwitting the unoutwitable. And we like to see him rise on the social ladder, at least until the 20th century sets in and, like the protagonist in Budd Schulberg's WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? he finds that the highest reward may not be a reward after all. Do-good evil triumphs after all.

Obviously I like the story, and if you're intrigued by any of the above, you will like it, too.

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, March 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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