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
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game