A red herring big enough to sink Titanic by Boris Akunin

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The Independent Culture

First encountered in his 2003 novel The Winter Queen, Boris Akunin's impeccably mannered detective Erast Fandorin now returns in Leviathan with the task of finding a killer amid the lingering cigar smoke of the first-class passengers of the world's largest steam-ship, on its way to Calcutta via the Suez canal.

It's Paris, 1878, and ten dead bodies have been discovered in the well-respected household of British collector Lord Littleby. The only clue is a miniature gold whale left in Littleby's hand, which leads Commissioner Gauche (in charge of the investigation) to the first-class section of the Leviathan. But will he unveil the true murderer, or make a hash of the investigation in his haste to get a decent retirement package? Step forward Erast Fandorin...

From the start, Akunin uses various methods to present the story, in order to keep throwing us off the scent. You can be fairly confident at taking the newspaper clippings and police reports at face value, but by the time the conversations, suspicious goings-on and violent encounters on board have been recounted in the diaries, letters and sketches of many of the key suspects, you know that Akunin is playing with you, tossing you clues that seem oh- so-insignificant at the time. Likewise, Akunin highlights unimportant events, drawing attention to "suspicious" behaviour, and once or twice these clues are a little heavy-handed. For example, when one of the more mild-mannered suspects reveals in their diary a desire to harm another passenger, it struck me as a red herring big enough to sink the Titanic, and you probably won't fall for it either.

The characters are a varied bunch, from the pompous Gauche to the pregnant Renate Kleber, who moans constantly. Fandorin himself doesn't even begin to make his mark until the on-board activities take a sinister turn, but this, too, is just Akunin's way of preventing the reader from becoming too comfortable with one character or one version of events. Also, such a mix of passengers provides an entertaining clash of personalities as people display widely different interpretations of the rules of social etiquette. I enjoyed this well-placed light relief from the occasional slit throat and dead body.

It's been translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, and I'm not sure how much the style has changed in the process: even though you have jolly-hockey-sticks remarks such as "if you please!", and "the entire ponderous mechanism of the police...", it doesn't seem to be intentionally tongue-in-cheek. Akunin has embraced the rules of 19th-century conduct, even making the man's duty of fetching a lady's shawl an effective catalyst for more sinister events. Such charming language and an otherwise romantic setting ultimately highlights the shocking nature of the murders, and the switch between a comedy of manners and brutal murder makes this a thoroughly enjoyable read.