Friday, March 6, 2015

Review of The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin (Phoenix, 2004)

Moscow, May 1876.  A young man enters Alexander Gardens, propositions a rich young woman, then when rejected puts a pistol to his head and pulls the trigger.  The case is initially ruled as a tragic suicide, but novice detective, Erast Fandorin, is not convinced.  Suspicious of the circumstances of the death and the conditions of the will he starts to investigate.  He is soon drawn into the orbit of a beautiful woman with a harem of gentleman admirers and is witness to a murder.  Having persuaded his boss to allow him to follow the trail, Fandorin heads from Moscow to London, slowly becoming aware that he has stumbled on a worldwide conspiracy, placing his life in mortal danger.

The Winter Queen is a historical conspiracy tale, following the exploits of a dashing young detective, Erast Fandorin, as he seeks to foil a dangerous plot in late nineteenth century Moscow.  It’s billed on the cover as ‘Sherlock Holmes meets James Bond’, the tale is knowingly a little fanciful, focusing on the dastardly plans of a shadowy organisation.  Whilst it’s got many of the essential ingredients for such a story, the only real mystery is how the detective could not fathom the conspiracy when it is in plain sight to the reader.  Moreover, the conspiracy requires a little too much suspension of disbelief at times.  Fandorin is portrayed as a hero with much promise as a detective, and whilst he does manage to solve the case by following his intuition, he is also naive and makes some very poor decisions along the way, relying on the intervention of others and luck.  The result is that after a decent start the story is largely held together by its swashbuckling endeavours, its portrayal of upper class Moscow and its hierarchical societal structures, and pace.

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