The Winter Queen

by Boris Akunin

Reviewed by Susan Gillmor

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin The Winter Queen is a third-rate hotel in 1870s London and may seem an odd title for this thoroughly Russian mystery novel introducing young sleuth Erast Fandorin. As Boris Akunin draws us into this unusual, multi-faceted story, however, we suspect that even the title is not as straightforward as it first appears.

Fandorin is a wet-behind-the-ears, lowest of the low “clerk and civil servant fourteenth class” in Moscow’s Criminal Investigative Division, entrenched in Tsarist Russia’s strict hierarchical system of rank. His job is simply to write up reports, but when he receives an account of the latest in “the fashionable epidemic of pointless suicides,” he remarks to his superior that “there’s some kind of mystery here, I swear there is!” His superior, the “venerable superin-tendent” Xavier Grushin, recognizes in the young clerk an innate nose for detecting and allows Fandorin free rein to follow his instincts.

The mystery quickly mushrooms to include a case of clear-cut murder, suspected international intrigue and “denizens of the very darkest depths of society.” Fandorin will chase the clues from Moscow to London, with stops at Paris and Vienna on his way back to Mother Russia, unraveling the mystery slowly, continually surprised at the twists and turns the case takes, and “climbing the ladder very fast” from lowly clerk to undercover detective and beyond.

The prose of Andrew Bromfield's English translation is simple yet elegant. Numerous details support the historical atmosphere: A St. Petersburg police division implements both a telegraph and an experimental telephone, known as “Bell’s apparatus,” for its police work. Fandorin is saved from a fatal stabbing by the whalebones in his Lord Byron corset, an American invention promising “a truly manly figure - an inch-thin waist and yard-wide shoulders!”

The Winter Queen comprises elements of mystery, detective story, and traces of Russian fairytale as Fandorin repeatedly defies death in near-supernatural ways. Underlying its light, ironical spirit is a characteristic Russian darkness reminiscent of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. (English translation by Andrew Bromfield, 2003; 249 pages)

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Other historical mysteries set in Russia:

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog by Boris Akunin (2006), features a nineteenth century Russian nun as the sleuth; #1 in the Sister Pelagia mystery series. More info

The Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris (2007), features the fictional St. Petersburg police detective from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. More info

White Blood by James Fleming (2006), is a thriller about a naturalist snowbound in pre-revolutionary Russia who begins to suspect one of the soldiers trapped along iwth him may be a Bolshevik with murder on his mind. More info

Nonfiction about nineteenth-century Russia:

Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky (2005), about the tsar who ruled from 1855-1881, during the period when the Erast Fandorin mysteries are set. More info

Slavophile Empire: Imperial Russia's Illiberal Path by Laura Engelstein (2009). More info

Moscow: An Illustrated History by Kathleen Berton Murrell (2002).
More info

At the Movies:

Crime and Punishment, a 1970 Russian film production based on Dostoyevsky's 1866 novel.


Russian History, 1855-1892 at Wikipedia

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