Boris Akunin: The riddler of Russia

Boris Akunin's tsarist-era whodunits have delighted readers across the world. Jane Jakeman talks to him about the mysteries of Moscow, past and present

In the London flat where he's staying, near St Paul's Cathedral, I ask Akunin what is so attractive to modern Russians about the tsarist era. "The fact that he is a historical detective is not important," says Fandorin's creator. "The important thing is that this sort of writing was wanted by Russian readers but was non-existent in Russia. Under Communism, publishing was state-owned. There was a black market for books that were in demand, and millions of copies of books no one wanted to buy.

"Then the market changed drastically: there was a lot of violence, brutality and sex. By the mid-Nineties, there were two sorts of books: elitist highbrow fiction or very low literature, with nothing in-between. My books are mass-market literature for people with some education, people who like to use their brains."

But they are not escapism. Akunin comments on modern Russia through his books, a level of enjoyment much appreciated on his home turf. The latest Fandorin novel, The Death of Achilles (translated by Andrew Bromfield; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), is overtly set in the 19th century, but its account of corrupt politicians wheeling and dealing over the building of the cathedral of Christ the Saviour has a powerful resonance for modern Muscovites. "The cathedral was destroyed by the Bolsheviks and it is now being reconstructed," says Akunin. "They were collecting funds for it and there were all sorts of bribery and corruption."

Akunin has a mind-sharpening contribution to make on the debate on whether historical authors should try, religiously, to recreate the past in every detail. "There are intentional anachronisms in my books," he explains, "which remind my readers that it is not just historical description. I always do it on purpose - I introduce some technical invention which I know perfectly well didn't exist at that moment. Or I use a phrase taken from another language just once or twice, so that the reader will get startled and think 'He's fooling me, it's not true, it's not history'."

Akunin's aim is to write popular fiction, so how important is that essence of the genre, the storyline? "Very important. All the literary games and allusions - they are not significant for 90 per cent of my readers. In an adventure story, the plot is the only thing that is really important. The rest is just decoration.

"Have you ever seen a Russian matyrushka doll? Most people have no idea there are other dolls hidden inside. The big outer doll should be beautiful... If it is a qualified reader, he knows how to open it. He'll discover another doll, and just go on to the tiniest one. And still he won't be able to discover the smallest of all those matyrushkas because there is a certain level which is written just for myself, which only I can understand: symbols, jokes, just meant for myself. It gives me enormous pleasure to write."

In The Death of Achilles, Akunin has created a wonderfully vivid bad guy. Achimas emerges from an uprooted community of the strict Moravian Brothers, where his Nordic looks have set him apart and made him despised. As a child, he is witness to terrible scenes of brutality and when orphaned has a cruel struggle for survival. This is the background of that most vital of ingredients to a good crime story, the fascinating villain. Achimas becomes a hired assassin who will kill without conscience.

"Villains should make you think," says Akunin. "I was trying to understand the mentality of a man with such a horrible trade. He has to have some justification. It is not interesting to imagine a hired killer...If he is a monster, he should live in a really strange inner world. I was trying to reconstruct this inner world."

Akunin's characters are all pretty complex, including Masa, a sort of Japanese Dr Watson - very popular in Russia and the hero in his own right of two plays staged in Moscow. Fandorin is young, handsome, rich and brilliant, but nevertheless possesses a profound melancholy. "He lives in a very unhappy period of history, dramatic and tragical," says Akunin, "and he is very Russian. That means he is prone to doubts, lack of self-confidence, typical features of Russian intelligentsia which I find so attractive."

Akunin expresses his own doubt about whether national characteristics really exist, but adds that "There are some features in the Russian national character which I find quite disgusting: overstatement, lack of responsibility, lack of sense of privacy." And the good? "There is an intellectual hunger - you can never satisfy a Russian intellectual, he would always want more. Then there is a sort of spiritual freedom and a lack of prejudice."

But Fandorin, in spite of his fits of melancholy, has a bright future ahead of him. "Fandorin changes from novel to novel and his career takes ups and downs. He will rise higher and higher. It will end with a typical Russian conflict between the individual and authority." And another aspect of modern times will be reflected in the books. Akunin comments that you can make a career in Russia and also preserve your integrity only up to a certain point. Beyond that, the choice is corruption or failure to progress.

The new book is the fourth Fandorin story translated into English, though Akunin is the author of a number of other works. They include a series featuring a Miss Marple-like nun, Sister Pelagia, the first of which will appear in English next year. A fifth Fandorin is also due and there will be a sixth in which the villain is a Jack-the-Ripper type maniac.

Akunin loves the dense historical associations of London ("Jack the Ripper is one of the most famous Brits!") and I am interviewing him in a hidey-hole tucked away near St Paul's, though his stay is not as peaceful as he hoped, with a building site on one side and cathedral bells on the other. Unavoidably, we talk of another famous 19th-century Brit.

The creator of Sherlock Holmes was a serious influence: "As a kid I loved all those... stories. Even now my estimate of Conan Doyle is very high. There are basically two schools of classical detectives - the Conan Doyle and the Agatha Christie. With Conan Doyle, the process of reading is more important than the plot. With Christie, it's the reverse, because her plots are so tricky that to make them work she steals vitality from her characters. So I belong to the Conan Doyle school, and my greatest ambition when I started was to be able to write detective novels which, when you re-read them for the second or third time, you discover something you didn't find the first time."

Akunin confides that if he ever stopped writing, he would take up inventing computer games. He loves puzzles, and at this point I begin to feel that this pleasant personage, outwardly so benevolent, is fixing me with the too-innocent eye of the expert poker player. He tells me that he has derived his pseudonym from Japanese, in which he is an expert, having worked as a translator, and that Akunin is Japanese for "bad guy". He also goes into a long discourse about the 19th-century Russian revolutionary Sergei Nechayev, author of Catechism of a Revolutionary, solemnly telling me how to spell the name. Later, I look up Nechayev, to find that his seminal revolutionary work was co-authored by none other than - the anarchist Bakunin.

This gentle teasing is nothing to the games that Fandorin has to play in Akunin's books. Most appalling is the "handkerchief duel", which was actually played by tsarist officers. Worse than Russian roulette, this ends in inevitable death for one of the participants. Fandorin also has to disentangle the celebrated "Kabardian knot", whose secret is known only to the initiated. Seizing my chance, I ask about the Kabardian knot. The answer remains a secret between us.

Boris Akunin will be appearing with Ian Rankin at the Edinburgh International Book Festival tomorrow

Biography: Boris Akunin

Boris Akunin is the pseudonym of Grigory Chkhartishvili, born in Georgia in 1956. He became a Japanese literary specialist at Moscow State University, and has been editor of a Japanese literature series. He was also assistant editor of Foreign Literature. His detective series set in tsarist Russia has been an international success, starting with The Winter Queen, and continuing with Murder on the Leviathan and The Turkish Gambit. He was named Russian Writer of the Year in 2000. The Erast Fandorin novels have sold more than 10m. copies in Russia alone; The Death of Achilles, the latest, is published this week by Weidenfeld. His series of "Sister Pelagia" detective stories is forthcoming. Akunin, who lives in Moscow, has also written plays.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game