Sunday, 6 May 2012

Delicious Death: Boris Akunin edition

As you may have noticed, I love crime novels. The dissertation that I should currently be writing (but I'm not, because I'm writing this) is, in essence, an excuse for me to read a lot of awesome detective fiction. I can't quite believe that I've managed to trick my department into letting me have so much fun.

For the love of god, never read this book
Now, as far as British detective fiction (and my dissertation) is concerned, the Golden Age is where it is at. Most recent British writers seem to me to be either Trying Too Hard To Be Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayer,  or Trying Too Hard To Not Be Like Them At All, and it makes for awkward, slightly painful reading (see: James, P. D.; also Rendell, Ruth, a writer so dreadful that even remembering the book I read by her makes me feel ill). In my opinion, the best stuff being written today as opposed to seventy years ago is not only not coming from Britain, it's not orginally in English at all.

Now, I know you think that's the lead-up to me starting to go googly-eyed over Scandinavian crime, to which I say: hah. Tricked you. I read a Henning Mankell once, and the experience was enough to last me a lifetime. For 450 pages, Wallander slowly stared up at the birds in the sky and slowly thought about the slow inevitability of death. Slowly. By page 100 I was hoping someone would do him in.

In fact, apart from the works of Anne Holt I've come to the conclusion that I'm not a very pro-Scandinavian person at all, and my two favourite contemporary crime writers are not from Sweden or Norway at all. They're Fred Vargas (French) and Boris Akunin (Georgian/ Russian), and they're awesome.

One day I will give Vargas (don't be fooled into thinking she's male, like me she is just trying to trick you with her name) a proper write-up, but today I'm mainly blogging about Boris Akunin.

If Akunin isn't known much around these parts, he more than makes up for it in Mother Russia. Think about our attitude to J. K. Rowling, imagine her as a writer of adult crime novels (which won't take much doing after September, actually) and you've pretty much got the way Russians feel about Akunin. Over there he is a god of popular fiction, and his detective, Erast Fandorin, is a literary hero, like Poirot but sexier.

The Fandorin series is set in late nineteenth century Imperial Russia (think Tolstoy with stabbings), and it follows the life of State Councillor Fandorin (his official title changes a lot, and trying to remember it makes me bewildered, but the essential point is that he is The Business, beloved of kings, emperors and actresses alike). Each novel lets us drop in on Fandorin at a certain point during his life - the first, The Winter Queen, is set when he's twenty and not yet cool, and by the time we get to Special Assignments, the one I've just read, he's about thirty-five and owns a very large house and several demanding mistresses.

The series (apart from being about crime and nineteenth century Russia) has an overarching theme, which in my view makes it especially cool: Akunin has identified thirteen subgenres of detective fiction (locked room, espionage, consipracy, country house and so on) and has written a Fandorin title for each of them. It's a brilliant idea, and means that the formula of the novels never begins to feel boring. In one book, Fandorin is creeping through back alleys in search of a mysterious evil, and in the next he's galloping about during the Russo-Turkish war. He goes on boats, he goes on trains, he goes to Japan and learns fabulous fighting moves and then he presumably does a lot of other stuff, but in later books that I haven't got to yet.

To be fair, Akunin's more a charming writer than a great one, and I'm also forced to conclude that there's stuff going on with the character of Fandorin's Japanese servant Masa that, if it isn't overtly racist, is definitely teetering on the edge of it. But all the same, the books are an enormous amount of fun to read. Their scenes are interesting, their plots are clever and they're laid out in a sharp, engaging, fast-paced way that means you can read 100 pages of one without even noticing.

It also doesn't hurt that Fandorin himself is a top-notch detective creation. He's got just the right balance of endearing quirks (he stutters and is somewhat strange) to sexy mystery (he has a troubled past and a startling ability to win every game of chance he plays), making him familiar but essentially unknowable and therefore insanely cool. He's even got that essential Man of Mystery accessory, a lock of pure white in an otherwise black head of hair. Ooh, Erast, you saucy thing.

As I said, I've just read Special Assignments, and I've got The State Councillor sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me to finish Moby Dick (sharp-eyed readers may have noticed the new 'currently reading' widget in the top right corner. At the moment I am on page 212 and Cap'n Ahab is being a FEROCIOUS CRUSTY DEVIL, but so far the White Whale is just rumour and hearsay). I am having surprising amounts of fun with Moby Dick (more on that later, and don't be so dirty-minded), but all the same the thought of Erast Fandorin pursuing wrongdoers on a train is a lot more enticing than 300 pages more of salty sea dogs harpooning each other (at this stage, the jokes are writing themselves). What can I say? Crime novels are fun, and good crime novels are things of endless delight.

In conclusion, if you like Russia, history, mystery and dark-haired men (and who does not?) you should put down your Scandinavian crime and your P. D. Jameses and read these books. Agatha Christie would definitely approve.

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