The Winter Queen
By Boris Akunin
English Translation by Andrew Bromfield
ISIS Large Print, (2005)
Genre: Mystery, Russian Fiction
Reviewed by Auggie Moore - May 4, 2005
Grigory Chkhartishvili is a Russian writer who is widely known for his work as a Japanese translator. He also works under the penname of Boris Akunin, as a novelist. His mysteries, featuring the indomitable detective, Erast Fandorin, are the most widely read novels in Russia. After reading The Winter Queen, the first of Akunin's ten (to date) Fandorin mysteries, you'll understand why his works are so popular in Russian.
The Winter Queen is more akin to a modern thriller, rather than a run-of-the-mill Agatha Christie styled mystery. Set in the 1870's, this story introduces us to Fandorin and it allows us to follows him as he investigates the death of a wealthy student. At first, the case seems simple. The young man committed suicide, in public, case closed. Yet Fandorin is not one to accept the facts at face value. He wants to understand why the student killed himself, if indeed he did, and why was it done in such a public setting. The case takes him on a hair-raising adventure through Moscow, and across Europe all the way to London. In the process he becomes embroiled in an international conspiracy, he must battle against a host of evil villains, and most difficult of all, he must avoid falling prey to a beautiful woman.
Throughout, Akunin ably portrays a sense of what life was like in Russia in the 1870's. His take is almost satirical as he portrays the gulf that existed between the indolent aristocrats and the hard working, and often starving, Russian peasants. While not a central point of the story, the brewing revolutionary feelings that are beginning to take hold in Russia serves as added color to a novel that is already rich in both characterizations and atmosphere.
Atmosphere and historical accuracy aside, this is a smashing G. K. Chesterton styled mystery. The tale is complex, with lots of false leads to throw the reader off the trail. Fandorin is a wonderfully engaging detective, sort of a merging of Columbo and Miss Marple - a bit bumbling, often seen as ineffectual due to his appearance and attitude, but always on his toes. He is sharp witted, observant, and tenacious. Despite being a fairly new member of the Moscow Police Force, he is willing to take risks, if he thinks that it will help him solve a case.
The Winter Queen was translated into English by Andrew Bromfield and he expertly captured Akunin's narrative style and sense of adventure. This is a masterful story on all counts, and delightful to read! To date, two more Erast Fandorin have been issued in English translation, and are available in large print. They are the Turkish Gambit, the second book in the series, and the Murder on the Leviathan, the third book in the series.
The Winter Queen can be purchased directly from Ulverscroft, the parent company of ISIS Large Print.
Murder on the Leviathan, by Boris Akunin.
A murder mystery, ala Agatha Christie, in which two detectives, the French Gustav Gauche and the Russian Erast Fandorin, must discern which of the 142 first class passengers on the Leviathan is a diabolical killer.
Turkish Gambit, by Boris Akunin.
On the front lines during the Russo-Turkish war, a reluctant Detective Fandorin finds himself hunting for a spy in this, the second installment in the Erast Fandorin series.
Special Assignments, by Boris Akunin.
Containing two interrelated historical novels. This story finds the Russian Detective Erast Fandorin pitted against two formidable foes: Jack of Spades a whimsical swindler and The Decorator a serial killer who makes Jack the Ripper look tame.