A bizarre suicide in a public square teeming with Muscovites enjoying a sunny springtime day is the opening scene in this quirky Russian detective story The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin; the date is the 13 of May 1876. A drunken gentleman dressed in the student uniform of the local university makes an inappropriate pass at a pretty young girl sitting with her chaperone. When refused by the girl and chastised by her nanny, the gentleman suddenly raises a gun to his temple and pulls the trigger—boom, this novel of Czarist Russia is off to a rousing start.
Detective superintendent Grushin must investigate the apparent suicide and because it appears routine he assigns his newest and least experienced investigator. The youthful Erast Fandorin is dispatched to the scene; he encounters the beautiful young girl and, immediately, is smitten by her grace and charm. It is then that he decides to investigate further—a fateful decision for the young detective, the girl and for the reader of this comically dark novel.
Fandorin is a brilliant but bumbling young man who lost his position at university and his rank in Czarist society when his father committed suicide after having squandered the family fortune. The penniless Fandorin must work for a living. He could have entered the civil service, but chose instead to become a policeman. He is newly assigned to the investigative branch of the Moscow Police.
But, what is the novice detective like? In the author’s words:
… it would seem appropriate at this point to describe Erast Fandorin’s appearance in somewhat greater detail, since he is destined to play a pivotal role in the astounding and terrible events that will shortly unfold. He was a most comely youth with black hair (in which he took a secret pride) and the blue eyes (ah, if only they had also been black!), rather tall, with a pale complexion and confounded, ineradicable ruddy bloom on his cheeks.
Fandorin, it appears, would be a perfect match for the beautiful young girl. Except that she is the daughter of a Privy Councilor of Russia and is clearly unattainable by a penniless young policeman with no social position.
The youthful Fandorin shows his aptitude for detective work quickly; he discovers irregularities in the will of the suicide victim and discovers clues to an international terrorism threat. He is advanced in rank and sent to London to uncover the deadly secrets of the Winter Queen. Although he is bumbling and naïve, he has one quality that will help him surmount all challenges and make futile the efforts of the conspirators to murder him—he is lucky, exceptionally lucky.
In the end, Fandorin’s luck abandons him when ambition leads him to seek advancement in society and a well-placed marriage to the Privy Councilor’s daughter. Vengeance is cruel, and in the ultimate scenes of the novel all is nearly lost. Of course, the hero survives and the detective series continues. Erast Fandorin will go on to star in more than 10 novels in this acclaimed series by Boris Akunin that is just now appearing in the United States.
The translation by Andrew Bromfield reads nicely in English and captures, for me, the flavor of the Czarist society at the height of power just a few years before the people’s revolution will destroy it forever. The bumbling detective work of Fandorin is humorous and inventive. However, I got a little boored by the repeatedly inept murder attempts of the villains. But, the startling ending righted the scales for me and I finished the novel with a good feeling.
The next novel in the series, The Turkish Gambit, is a spy novel set in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877. In the opening chapter, the reader finds the blue-eyed Fandorin disguised as a Serbian volunteer making his way home from captivity in Turkey. He is about to assist a pretty young damsel who has been accosted by a hulking executioner… Can’t wait to read it.
Day 37: The Winter Queen (Boris Akunin, a pen name; tr. Andrew Bromfield) (2004).