Akunin, Boris - 'The Coronation' (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
THE CORONATION is the most recent entry in Akunin's superb Erast Fandorin series, one of the few series of foreign crime novels that are actually being translated in their original order. Each one is a pastiche of a particular sub-genre of the crime novel: we've had spy stories, classic Christie-esque mysteries, political thrillers, battlefield adventures, heist-romps and serial killers. This one is a hostage thriller. It concerns The coronation of Russia's new tsar following the death of the old one, and as you might imagine it is definitely an Event, and everyone's coming to the party. Including master-criminal Doctor Lind (an uninvited presence, of course), and that means Erast Fandorin, who has long been on the Doctor's trouble-making trail, is along as well.
At first, it's a walk in the park. The new tsar's young nephew and teenage niece are taking a stroll in pleasant grounds with their governess and butler when, out of nowhere, a carriage dispenses some scoundrels who attempt to kidnap the niece. The governess dashes into the bushes with the young boy, whilst the butler stands by shocked as a Japanese pedlar and a another man set to the kidnappers, foiling their attempt and killing the three men. In the aftermath, the other man unveils himself to be Fandorin, and the Japanese pedlar his devoted manservant Masa. But when the party reconvenes after the drama, the young boy is gone. Fandorin explains that he has been tracking the notorious Doctor Lind for a great number of months, and has come to Moscow suspecting that he will pull some significant scheme during the coronation festivities. And his worst fears are further confirmed when a ransom note for the young boy arrives, threatening that the boy will be killed if Doctor Lind is not presented with The Count Orlov, a beautiful Russian diamond from the imperial collection. However, The Count Orlov is contained within a regal sceptre that simply MUST be present for the coronation ceremony to take place...
Every single one of these Fandorin books are supreme fun, and this is no exception. They indeed get better and better with each one. Akunin's writing is sprightly, very witty, and supremely literate. The novels are exciting, hilarious, full of adventure, and very, very clever. As one of the policemen says, "we need no help from any Sherlock Holmeses, thank you" (or something to that effect), and he's on the money there: Fandorin is the Russian Sherlock Holmes, but with much more humour and a bit more action. Indeed, this novel has something of Holmes' "last" case to it, where in the prologue we see a glimpse of the final pages: Fandorin struggles with nemesis Lind, is shot, and tumbles from a bridge onto the rocks and waters below, much like Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls. Of course (and this is giving nothing away, as we know there are further books in the series), there is a twist in the tail and Fandorin does not meet his end quite yet.
There's another intra-textual reference to THE CORONATION, too: this novel with a political eye is narrated by the aforementioned butler, a supremely dignified individual, who considers it the highest honour to serve the imperial Romanov family. I can't decide if this is intended to reference Kazuo Ishiguro's superb The Remains of the Day or not, but it is very, very reminiscent of it. As with that novel, allowing a butler to provide the narrative allows for social comment, political comment, psychological comment and more. There's a similar restrainedness to the two butler-narrators, a similar humour arising from their sometime-inability to get at the right end of the practical stick, and a very similar outlook that the two characters share: devotedness, dignity, suppressed emotion, a personal feeling of privilege. I dearly hope Akunin had that novel at least partly in mind when writing this, because if so it is a superbly accomplished homage. And, as we know from previous entries, Akunin loves homage, and also judges them perfectly.
Akunin has a superbly enjoyable style: it's idiosyncratic in the same way that Andrea Camilleri's style is. Completely unique, yet it fits the form perfectly, and brings another kind of humour to the genre. As such, THE CORONATION is very highly recommended indeed - as are all his books. They're great fun, full of excitement and adventure, wonderful characters, and are highly intellectually engaging as well. What more could you want?
Fiona Walker, England