- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

THE DEATH OF ACHILLES

By Boris Akunin

Random House, $16.95, 320 pages, paper

One should not underestimate the power of an elegant and mysterious setting. Boris

Akunin, a writer touted by his publisher as “Russia’s #1 bestselling novelist (published in 33 languages with over 15 million copies of his novels sold worldwide!), [and] the only Russian writer to reach a mass audience abroad as well as domestically since the Soviet collapse,” recently was the honoree at a book party held at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Washington.

The Ambassador of the Russian Federation and Mrs. Yuri V. Ushakov with Random House were the hosts, and for a short time in the opulent surroundings where wine and vodka flowed and the smoked salmon was to die for, one could imagine that something grand and unpredictable — sinister even — could happen here.

The playful honoree had more than a little to do with this apprehension. Underneath a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, Mr. Akunin, the current superstar of Russian detective fiction, took to the podium and opened his remarks by pretending that a murder had just taken place. It was the perfect ice-breaker in the gorgeous and sophisticated setting, which seemed light years away from the industrial gray days of the Communist era.

Of course, it is not post-Soviet grandeur, that one thinks about when reading Mr. Akunin’s latest novel, “The Death of Achilles,” but pre-Soviet grandeur. And fictional period pieces, no less than the haunting portrait of a distant and beloved monarch (in a very nice frame), can and do make many people swoon. Including this reviewer.

“The Death of Achilles” is a book that thrills in the manner of the detective fiction of the genre’s greatest writers. Boris Akunin (whose real name is Grigory Chkartasvili) has been compared to Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Edgar Allen Poe. He has also been compared to Ian Fleming and Alexander Dumas. While the comparisons are in certain ways quite apt, Mr. Akunin’s inventions are his own.

More to the point, his detective, Erast Fandorin, is one of a kind — a durable protagonist who speaks several languages, knows how to kickbox, likes to take ice baths after hand stands and has a Japanese manservant named Masa.

In “Death of Achilles,” readers meet Fandorin returning to Moscow after six years of foreign travel and adventure. The year is 1882 and Moscow is in transition. Gas is being replaced in some quarters with electricity and there is talk in the newspapers of a railway tunnel under the English channel being built to link France and England. Ivan Turgenev, whose star was rising when Fandorin left to take up a post as a Russian diplomat in Japan, is no longer in favor.

Mr Akunin writes, “Fandorin was dismayed to read that. Among the Russian diplomats in Japan it was considered good tone to praise Turgenev … How very far he had fallen behind the literary scene in Russia during his absence of almost six years!”

But Fandorin has little time to adjust to the changes of his native city. In the hotel where he is staying, an old war-hero friend, General Michel Sobolev (known as “Achilles”), has been found dead in his armchair of what appears to be a heart attack. But with Fandorin’s intervention, readers first learn that it was not a heart attack that struck him while he sat in his armchair, but that his death was the result of an amorous encounter with the seductive chanteuse Wanda.

Then just as the reader is digesting the scandalous repercussions of a famous man’s death in the arms of a lover not his wife, the plot takes yet another turn. It was not love-making that killed the general; it was poison. What follows is a tapestry involving spies and flipping allegiances, ninja gymnastics, disguises and Fandorin’s cool mastery of everything and everyone he encounters, including the bewitching Wanda.

Wanda of the “wide, radiant eyes” could capture the hearts of any who listened to her sing, including Fandorin, though the lyrics of what she sang were sometimes confounding:

Beside a crossroads far

away,

Buried in sand a body lies.

Above it blooms a dark-blue

flower,

The flower of the suicides.

Chill evening wrapped the

world in slumber

As at that spot I stood and

sighed.

The moon shone on its gen

tle swaying… .

The flower of the suicides.

All right, so there is some Russian melancholy at play here, but there is also humor, mischief and Fandorin’s unflappable common sense. What one remembers from this engaging book is the way the detective sets about his work, a style which often includes making lists that number the steps he will take to reach the conclusion he desires.

Apart from the resolution of its central mystery, the book has much to say about a period of history when Russia was perched on the cusp of catastrophic changes. Mr. Akunin plays with the time issue in subtle ways, such as in Fandorin’s thoughts when passing a gymnasium where some military officers were practicing their fencing:

“Fandorin shook his head skeptically: of course, knowing how to fence was essential for an officer of the gendarmes. But with whom, he wondered. With the bomb-throwers? It was an obsolete skill. They would do better to study jujitsu or even, in a pinch English boxing.”

War and warriors play a central part here. And so does fate and foreign affairs. German-Russian relations are subtly explored throughout the book, and the fate of the nation at the hands of one brother instead of another is slyly mentioned. When the Grand Duke Kirill Alexandrovich speaks at the funeral of Sobolev, Fandorin muses:

“If only one brother had been born two years sooner and the other two years later, the autocratic ruler of Russia would not have been the prevaricating, inert, morose Alexander, but the intelligent, farsighted, and decisive Kirill.” If and if.

For now, readers have the stunning fiction of Boris Akunin to bridge the transitions and the mysteries.

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