Tag Archives: 19th Century

Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novels

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Erast Petrovich Fandorin is a fictional 19th-century Russian detective and the hero of a series of Russian historical detective novels by Boris Akunin. A philologist, critic, essayist, and translator of Japanese, Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novels have made him one of the most widely read authors in Russia.The first novel was published in Russia in 1998, and the latest was published in December 2009. More than 15 million copies of Fandorin novels have been sold as of May 2006, even though the novels were freely available from many Russian web-sites and the hard-copies were relatively expensive by Russian standards. New books in the Fandorin series typically sell over 200,000 copies in the first week alone, with an unparalleled (for mystery novels) first edition of 50,000 copies for the first books to 500,000 copies for the last. In Russia, the Fandorin series rivals The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter in popularity. The English translations of the novels have been critically acclaimed by, among others, Ruth Rendell.

Akunin describes in The Winter Queen how Erast Fandorin was orphaned at the age of nineteen. He never knew his mother, and his father died bankrupt, leaving only debts. Fandorin had to abandon his education at Moscow University and was forced to enter the police force as a clerk. Since the events in The Winter Queen take place in the spring of 1876 (when Akunin says Fandorin is twenty), this places his birth some time in the year 1856. Further hints at Fandorin’s ancestry are given in another novel, Altyn Tolobas, one of four novels set in the present day and featuring Fandorin’s grandson Nicholas, where Akunin writes of how Captain Cornelius von Dorn, a German hussar, entered Russia in ca. 1680. Erast Fandorin represents the 8th generation counting from Cornelius, the German name von Dorn having been Russified to Fandorin in the 18th century.

In The Winter Queen, Fandorin falls in love with a seventeen-year-old girl, Elizaveta, whom he meets while he is investigating his first case. On their wedding day, she was killed by a bomb in a package addressed to Fandorin himself. At the time of the explosion, Fandorin was out pursuing the person who delivered the bomb and thus miraculously escaped without physical harm. The trauma of losing his bride leads to a lifelong slight stammer in Fandorin and a premature greyness at the temples.

In The Turkish Gambit, Fandorin is charged with the capture of a Turkish spy during the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Upon his return, he requests to be stationed in a remote post, and becomes second secretary to the Russian ambassador in Japan. His adventures in Japan are detailed in the second part of The Diamond Chariot and in Jade Rosary Beads. In Japan, he saves the life of the fallen yakusa Masa, who becomes his manservant as a token of gratitude. He learns martial arts, including ninjitsu, and trains in them every day with Masa. In The Death of Achilles Akunin describes how Fandorin returns to Russia, only to find his old friend General Mikhail Sobolev murdered. Fandorin enters the service of The Governor-General of Moscow, Knyaz Dolgoruki (a fictionalized version of Valdimir Dolgorukov).Fandorin rises from the rank of Collegiate Registrar to that of Collegiate Counsellor over the years 1876 to 1891 (ranks XIV and VI in the Table of Ranks, respectively).

In The State Counsellor, set in 1891, Fandorin is accused of the attempted murder of the Governor of Moscow. After he clears his name, Fandorin is offered the job of Oberpolizeimeister but declines, instead resigning from public service and becoming a private investigator. He then leaves for America, studying engineering at M.I.T., in 1895, as told in Jade Rosary Beads. In The Coronation, Fandorin returns to Russia in time to prevent an international scandal from occurring during the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in 1896. In 1905, Fandorin protects the Trans-Siberan Railway from Japanese saboteurs during the Russo-Japanese War.

Allusions to the fate of Fandorin are made in Altyn Tolobas. Late in life Fandorin marries again and has at least one son, Alexander, who is born in exile in London in 1920, his mother having left Russia in 1919 while pregnant, which implies that Erast Fandorin died in that year in the turmoil of the Russian Civil War. Alexander’s son, Nicholas Fandorin, is born around 1960.

I stumbled on these books a couple of years ago and have religiously bought them as soon as translations have become available (my Russian being less than impressive). I’ve considered blogging on each of them, but decided to spread the good word in one all-purpose review. The Fandorin novels are set in the late 19th century, a time of great turmoil and upheaval within Russian society. Fandorin is an unusual character, encapsulating the rigorous logic and analytic method of a Holmes with a complex history and moral code that sets him apart from other fictional detectives. The historical setting demonstrates constancy and accuracy, and the plotting and narrative structure varies throughout the series. I find the novels similar in quality and style to C.J. Samson’s Mathew Shardlake series, and I heartily recommend any fan of historical mysteries to give them a go.

(Available in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop)

 

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