Leviathan, Boris Akunin, trans. Andrew Bromfield

A classic whodunnit with a Russian twist
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Leviathan IS the second of Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin detective novels, bestsellers in Russia, to be published in this country. In March 1878, Lord Littleby, an eccentric British collector of oriental art, is found beaten to death with a gold statuette in his Paris mansion. The nine members of his staff are also murdered - this time by the injection of a deadly substance. Nothing of significance is taken, apart from the statuette. The only clue, clutched in the corpse's fingers, is a tiny gold whale.

Leviathan IS the second of Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin detective novels, bestsellers in Russia, to be published in this country. In March 1878, Lord Littleby, an eccentric British collector of oriental art, is found beaten to death with a gold statuette in his Paris mansion. The nine members of his staff are also murdered - this time by the injection of a deadly substance. Nothing of significance is taken, apart from the statuette. The only clue, clutched in the corpse's fingers, is a tiny gold whale.

It's a case for Commissioner Gauche, "Investigator for Especially Important Cases" of the Paris police. The whale leads to the great Anglo-French ship Leviathan, about to make its maiden voyage to India. The golden emblems were given only to senior officers and first-class passengers - 142 of them. Undaunted, Gauche narrows his list of suspects down to four and arranges to share a dining room with them on the voyage.

There's an English baronet with a galloping case of paranoia. A Japanese nobleman claims unconvincingly to be an officer in the Imperial Army and shocks fellow-passengers when he strolls about in a robe, wooden slippers and a disgraceful absence of trousers. The youthful wife of an absent Swiss banker is obsessed with her own pregnancy, and a shameful habit she pursues in the privacy of her cabin. A wealthy, unmarried Englishwoman is curiously unwilling to admit that she has ever been to Paris, despite evidence to the contrary.

These are the prime suspects. Gauche fills the other places in the dining room with a motley selection of makeweights: the first officer, the ship's doctor and his wife, a specialist in Indian archaeology and - a late arrival at Port Said - a mysterious Russian diplomat, Erast Fandorin. The elegant Fandorin soon takes centre-stage.

The narrative is filtered through several viewpoints, none reliable. As the Leviathan steams towards India, the body count increases, and the motive for the murders emerges - an immense fortune in jewels, which disappeared during the Indian Mutiny. Someone is so determined to find the jewels they are prepared to destroy the Leviathan.

There is something very familiar about all this: the gentlemanly sleuth with superhuman powers, the blundering policeman, the closed circle of suspects, the affluent surroundings, the oriental treasure, and the mysterious foreigners (even the British qualify). But Akunin's Russian perspective brings something new; and so does his enthusiasm.

Stripped to essentials, the story is absurd, and so is its setting. But Akunin knows precisely what he's doing. He writes with such intelligence, humour and panache that the reader becomes his ally rather than his critic. Judging by his sales figures, he must now have enough allies to populate a medium-sized country. The Fandorin detective series has apparently sold more than eight million copies in Russia alone.

The reviewer's latest novel is 'The American Boy' (Flamingo)

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