Akunin, Boris - 'The Death of Achilles' (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
This is the ninth in the phenomenally popular Erast Fandorin series, but just the fourth to appear in English. Thus readers are required to reconstruct as best they can what has befallen our hero in the six years since he first left his native city, heartbroken and bereft. A lot seems to have - here he is, back in Moscow, accompanied by a Japanese manservant, Masa, fluent in Japanese, more than a bit accomplished in various Japanese martial arts, and evidently mooning over yet another lost love. It is 1882, Moscow is experiencing the first stirrings of modernisation, and Collegiate Assessor Fandorin has been retained by Prince Dolgorukoi, governor-general of the city, to work on special assignments. But before he can embark on whatever the prince had had in mind, his old friend from the Balkan campaign, General Michel Sobolev, is discovered dead in his room, the apparent victim of a heart attack. Fandorin is unconvinced - there are too many unexplained circumstances for his taste, and he sets out to prove that the general was the victim of foul play. His investigations lead to the boudoir of the attractive Wanda, in whose bed the general may actually have breathed his last and then to Moscow's infamous criminal slums where he falls afoul of the notorious thief, Little Mischa.
Readers unfamiliar with the series will infer from the preceding paragraph that Fandorin is neither a probable nor an ordinary hero and that Akunin is treating us to a stylish and enthusiastic evocation of the romantic thrillers of the late nineteenth century. Fandorin has been called a Russian Sherlock Holmes, and he does resemble that brooding figure to some extent. He is eccentric, forcing himself to bathe in a tub filled with ice for the sake of self-mastery and undertaking some rather remarkable physical exercises related to ninja practices. He is thus also what Holmes is not - faintly and endearingly absurd, especially since his faithful servant, Masa, bears an unmistakable resemblance to Clouseau's Cato. But in this novel, there is another Sherlockian echo - like Holmes and Moriarty, he is shadowed by his dark mirror image, the former bandit and hired killer, Achimas Welde. It is his story that takes over the second half of the book as the two figures move unwittingly toward one another for a confrontation that only one can survive.
In the hands of a lesser writer, all of this would be too silly for words, but Akunin carries it all off in impeccable style and great panache. Fortunately for those of us who do not read Russian, Andrew Bromfield is fully up to the task of conveying the spirit of the original in an exuberant English prose that bears no taint of translation. One warning - this book ought not be read before the first in the series, THE WINTER QUEEN.
NB. Please note this review is of the US edition. THE DEATH OF ACHILLES is available in UK Hardback and will be in UK paperback from 3 August 2006.
Yvonne Klein, Canada