This is the fifth of Akunin’s series of novels featuring Erast Fandorin, dashing detective and adventurer. Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Shalvovic Chkhartishvili, a Russian editor, translator and essayist who didn’t write his first detective story until he was in his 40s; the rest is history. Now, thanks to the runaway success of the Fandorin mysteries, he is one of Russia’s best-known writers, and in translation, very popular beyond its borders.
Akunin’s appeal lies in his skillful blending of elements of classic Russian fiction familiar to non-Russian readers with some of the fundamentals of the more exotic sort of detective fiction, such as seductive settings and beautiful, mysterious women. In this novel, for example, there are some scenes set amongst a group of lowlifes in a grimy tavern straight out of Crime and Punishment, but there is also the elegant hotel Dusseaux in which Fandorin resides, as well as the glamorous if slightly sinister apartments of Wanda, the seductive courtesan who is initially implicated in the murder that lies at the center of the novel.
Akunin has also created a singularly appealing detective. Fandorin is constructed to appear swashbuckling, yes, and heroic, but every once in a while a note of ironic humor creeps into the narrative that keeps him human and the reader sympathetic. Like Sherlock Holmes, he is a uniquely individual stereotype—a contradiction in terms that requires a great deal of skill to pull off; Akunin, however, is up to the task. Fandorin makes his appearance in The Death of Achilles leaping energetically out of a railway carriage - first-class, of course. He’s dressed to the nines in “a light suite of sandy-colored wild silk, a wide-brimmed hat of Italian straw, shoes with pointed toes” and “white spats with silver press-studs.” Tall, “with a trim figure and wide shoulders,” he has blue eyes and black hair “shaded intriguingly into silver-gray at the temples.” But if this all seems too good to be true, wait a few pages, because once settled into his hotel, Fandorin, who has a slight lisp, strips naked and plunges into a bath of water and two pails of chipped ice. The tongue-in-cheek description of these Spartan ablutions serves to make the dashing hero a bit more human, a bit more credible.
His inevitable sidekick, like Dr. Watson, also helps to make Fandorin seem fallible enough to be plausible. Masa is “a short bandy-legged oriental gentleman with a compact physique and an extremely solemn face and fat cheeks.” Actually Japanese, he’s somewhat of a rogue, with a taste for Russian women and, a distaste for Russian food, and, as it turns out, a very hard head. He and his Fandorin indulge in various oriental rituals that have their comic side. There is a wonderfully visual scene, for instance, in which Masa and his master prepare for action by running up the walls of the hotel room to see who can go the highest. Yet as is the classic role of the sidekick, Masa provides invaluable assistance when Fandorin gets himself in serious trouble later in the story.
If Akunin is a master at establishing character, he is an equally deft plotter. The “Achilles” of the title is the name given by the adoring public to General Michel Sobolev, a military hero whose sudden death in the arms of Wanda throws the police and the government into a state of chaos. Fandorin has returned to Moscow after a long absence on the very morning that the general’s aides are frantically trying to cover up the details of the general’s apparently unseemly demise, the natural causes of which Fandorin immediately doubts. As it turns out, he himself knew the general and his familiarity with his habits lies behind his resistance to the official story of how he died. He is well-equipped to search out the truth. He may be only 26, but Fandorin has quite a record. His official title of “collegiate registrar and . . . clerk in the Criminal Investigation Department” sounds bland enough, but it’s misleading in the extreme. He has been called to Moscow to undertake a special assignment for the governor-general, an old gentleman who finds some of the details in Fandorin’s service record, especially the awards for secret activities, alarming. The police chief, however, knows better, since he has a letter in his pocket assuring him that Fandorin has more than proved his merit and “formerly enjoyed the confidence of the late monarch.”
The year is 1882, a time when Russia was recovering from the bloody assassination of Alexander II, that late monarch, and discovering that his successor, Alexander III, was tyrannical. The last thing anyone in Moscow wants is a scandal involving a national figure like the general, yet there seems to be a certain amount of resistance to Fandorin’s involvement in the case, more than is justified by the circumstances, as the sleuth and his assistant find out as they uncover layer after layer of complications surrounding the general’s murder. The plot, in fact, becomes extremely complicated, perhaps too much so, especially for those readers who have trouble keeping the Russian names straight, and for Fandorin himself, who feels thwarted by enemies he cannot identify and forces beyond his control. There are myriad twists and turns and considerable complications, some of which seem to stem from factions close to the Czar. In the end, Fandorin, having down what he could and suffered in the process, is leaving Moscow, feeling he has failed and not knowing precisely why, when in a sudden reversal, he learns that on the contrary, all is understood and forgiven, that the man who was nearly his undoing has been caught out by the proper authorities. And so the novel ends on a comic note, with poor Masa being taken off for a breakfast of cabbage soup with chitterlings, a meal he will find a “terrible ordeal.”
Fun as this all is, it has been pointed out that the pen name “B. Akunin” refers to the anarchist Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin and to Akuna, a name associated with the poet Anna Akhmatova. “Akunin” is also a Japanese word that can be translated as “villain”—Akunin is, it so happens, a scholar of Japanese literature and culture. So although he has said that he wants only to be an entertainer, his intentions may be somewhat more serious. After all, even to indulge in detective fiction is for a Russian writer a statement of artistic freedom that was not possible for the greater part of the last century. Lovers of the genre should be all the more grateful for Akuna’s decision to take it up.