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by Boris Akunin
Random House, April 2006
336 pages
ISBN: 0812968808

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As far as I can work out, THE DEATH OF ACHILLES, though the fourth of Erast Fandorin's adventures to appear in English, is in fact the ninth in the series. We know that it is now 1882, six years after a heartbroken Fandorin left his native land to travel in foreign parts.

He has evidently spent considerable time in Japan (Akunin, in his other literary life, is an accomplished Japanese translator), for he comes back equipped with a faithful Japanese manservant Masa and some considerable facility in the arts of the ninja.

The collegiate assessor has returned to take up a post as deputy for special assignments at the behest of Prince Dolgorukoi, governor of Moscow. It is at once all thoroughly exalted and gloriously vague. But before he can embark on whatever special assignment the Prince may have had in mind, a popular national hero, General Sobolev, is discovered dead in his room, the apparent victim of a heart attack.

Fandorin, an old friend of the General from the Balkan campaign, is not having any of this -- there are too many unexplained circumstances. In no time at all, his investigations lead him first to the rooms of Wanda, singer and not-quite-courtesan (aka Fraulein Toelle) and then to the centre of the Moscow underworld where he falls afoul of the infamous thief, little Mischa.

It is at this point that the book takes a surprising turn. Suspending the action just when Fandorin is on the verge of capturing Sobolev's killer, Akunin turns to the life story of Achimas Welde, son of a member of the Brothers of Christ, a radical pacifist sect, and Fatima, a convert from Islam. Orphaned as a child, he turns his back on pacifism and in the course of time becomes first a bandit and then a superbly successful hired killer. Like the Titanic and the iceberg, he and Fandorin are drawn inexorably toward one another. Almost perfectly matched, it is by no means certain who will emerge alive.

Achimas and Fandorin are mirrors of each other, as are Sherlock and Moriarty to some degree. Achimas is what Fandorin might easily have become had he turned his considerable talents to crime. But whereas Fandorin, though always both fearless and admirable, is also faintly ridiculous, there is nothing remotely amusing about Achimas. Motivated solely by a desire for personal gain, he is a remorseless killer.

On the face of it, one would predict that so old-fashioned an approach to the thriller would attract only a limited following. But Akunin's Russian sales figures are the envy of crime fiction writers around the world. In English, he has been extremely fortunate in his translator, Andrew Bromfield, whose unrestrained, exuberant language is precisely what is needed to capture the essence of Akunin's odd, compelling hero. Akunin provides what hordes of readers, myself included, rejoice in -- shameless escapism and impeccable style.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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