16 January 2012

'Discovering' Boris Akunin

Imagine a young aspirant on the lowest rung of the Czarist police bureaucracy, 20-year-old Erast Fandorin, recently orphaned, indisputably wet behind the ears, stumbling (embarrassing 'foundation garment' and all) into his first case, which seems to involve a peripatetic game of what later centuries will call 'Russian roulette' (but which Russians in 1876 still call 'American roulette')... and a femme fatale for whom he's no match. At the outset, there's little to suggest that Fandorin has a big future (a distinguished career extending 35 years and counting, in which he will never solve the same kind of puzzle twice) or that his first case, The Winter Queen, will launch one of the most successful 'franchises' in international crime fiction. But in the Erast Fandorin novels, and in the other works of Boris Akunin (born 1956), appearances are often deceiving. Fandorin, it turns out, is not only brilliant (we suspected that) but also an astonishing polyglot, a master of disguise, a lover and, on occasion and in the line of duty, a killer....

I've been away from blogging for much longer than I intended, but at least I don't believe I've been wasting time. Among other things, I managed, in the course of my holiday hiatus, to 'discover' Akunin. I put 'discover' in quotation marks because, although I was reading him for the first time, he's been publishing novels for well over 20 years and is the best-known Russian author of genre fiction. He combines qualities of Dostoevsky and Nabokov, not to mention the great series novelists of other countries, whose success he rivals.

He's also amazingly prolific. His historical series about Erast Fandorin runs to a dozen volumes, many of them already published by Random House in the US and Hachette subsidiary Orion in the UK--and this does not count other series under the Akunin name or other works published under other names. ('Boris Akunin' is itself a pseudonym, and it would take an entire blogpost just to explore its multiple meanings.)

Different Akunin series have different organizational principles, slowly disclosed by Akunin through little clues, then made explicit in interviews and essays. The novels in one series, for example, illustrate what Akunin sees as the various possible sub-genres for a crime novel, at the rate of one novel for each type; another series parallels cinematic genres. In addition, different novels and series explore different eras: for example, the first Erast Fandorin novel, The Winter Queen, is set in 1876 and the latest in 1911; another series features Fandorin's British grandson in (mostly) the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Three of Akunin's novels have been filmed (lavishly, by all accounts) in Russia; The Winter Queen is currently getting the Hollywood treatment, for better or worse.

If you'd like to experience for yourself what all the excitement is about, I'd recommend to US readers this trade-paperback edition, and to UK readers this ebook edition, of The Winter Queen. (US customers of iBooks may find this link useful because of a database peculiarity that makes Akunin more difficult to search for otherwise; check prices carefully.)

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