May 1876. Moscow. Lizanda and her chaperone sitting on a bench near the Grotto on the Promenade witness a young student from a wealthy family use a revolver to shoot himself. Was the death really a suicide? Or a game of American roulette?
Erast Fandorin, clerk and civil servant fourteenth class, reports for duty to Brilling with the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Police. He’s sent out to investigate. He quickly discovers this is no ordinary suicide when Fandorin witnesses a murder directly related to the event.
The plot is as twisted as The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (1959); and historically situated in solving crimes as Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) with the intrigue of James Bond (Ian Fleming).
The telling is done with dry wit. It’s both a parody and a commentary on czarist society. Everyone is under surveillance by everyone else and the feeling is similar to the kind of peek-a-boo Boris and Natasha did in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. The young clerk gets his first break when his boss gets him to buy and wear a Lord Byron corset. You can’t help but chuckle when he invokes the breathing practices of Indian Brahmin Chandra Johnson to resist the effects of chloroform when he falls into his adversary’s hands…and it works. While working undercover he wins a lot of money playing poker with a person of interest; and his boss lets him keep it.
Whereas Colombo played an aging, sloppy, and confused investigator whose ability to act stupid led criminals into his lair of justice, Fandorin is a young, intelligent, and rational investigator whose beginner’s luck, sheer coincidence, and lack of experience lead him to indirectly discover one clue after another as he follows the hot trail across Europe to London.
Three female characters take center stage in the plot. Lizanda is his “angel” and Amalia is the spirit of “Azazel,” the conspiracy. Lady Astair is the third. Super-Nanny to the street urchins and poor orphans of London. That’s right; a female Fagin to Fandorin’s Oliver. There is a shocking traumatic cliffhanger ending; enough said. Read it.
The Winter Queen is the first in a series of eleven detective novels by Boris Akunin and introduces detective Erast Fandorin to the American audience. Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, a philogist, critic, essayist, translator of Japanese and author of two other series. Five of the Fandorin novels have been translated into English so far. The Sister Pelagia series has two titles translated to date. [published by
Random House Trade Paperbacks]