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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

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

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week