Mystery author #16: Boris Akunin

Title: The Winter Queen
Original Russian title: Azazel
Translator: Andrew Bromfield
Series detective: Erast Petrovich Fandorin
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1998
Type of mystery: Conspiracy, murder, thriller
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Russia: Moscow & St. Petersburg, England: London; 1876
Some themes: Obsession, love, social improvement

Story: Young Erast Fandorin, a lowly police clerk of good family but small means, is sent to investigate a mysterious suicide in Moscow. This leads him to a beautiful and mysterious woman who is not all what she seems. Events lead him to London where he discovers that she is involved in some kind of conspiracy. From then on, his life is in constant danger.

Review: I didn’t really know what to expect when I picked up this book, and after reading the first couple of chapters I wasn’t sure whether I was reading a mystery or the parody of one, so parodic, almost satirical at times, is the style. Akunin has a way of making subtle fun of his characters, especially Fandorin, who is callow and vain and makes a series of mistakes that would have left an unlucky person dead many times over. But Fandorin is very lucky and quite resourceful and good at extricating himself from trouble. Although his luck is phenomenal, coincidence is fortunately not a big feature in this story, because Fandorin is also clever, and uses his brain to solve the case, rather than fumbling around until the solution falls in his lap like so many other fictional detectives.

The story starts out like a mystery and you expect that it will be about finding out how the apparent suicide really was a murder, but it quickly changes direction and becomes a thriller and continues to change direction throughout the book while Fandorin unravels a far-reaching conspiracy. As it changes from mystery to thriller, the light, funny parodic style fades away and the story keeps getting darker until the extremely unpleasant ending.

Although this is a rollercoaster read, with something dangerous happening in nearly every chapter, I found myself unable to concentrate on it for more then three chapters at a time. I have not been able to put my finger on just what it was that made the book so difficult to concentrate on - it was certainly not a heavy read and is quite well translated (in the sense that it reads almost like it was written in English, with the exception of a number of rather annoying footnotes whenever someone uses French or German phrases). But there was something, possibly just me being stressed waiting for my grades. Anyway, I’m not letting it affect my rating of the book, and I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Akunin’s books.

Rating: A thrilling conspiracy mystery, a genuine rollercoaster of a book. Recommend it to both mystery and thriller fans. 4 stars.

Read an excerpt from The Winter Queen


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