The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin, trans. Andrew Bromfield

The case of the Muscovite corset
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The Independent Culture

Young Russian detective Erast Fandorin is saved from the first of many attempts on his life by a Byron corset. He can't afford the device which squeezes his figure into a fashionable shape. He can't afford to take such risks on his first case, but he also has a sixth sense. He's also an engaging personality – conscientious, honourable, and pleasingly naïve.

Hence one feels the instant appeal of this gentle mystery, and appreciates the extraordinary Russian success of Boris Akunin. Eight million copies of his Fandorin mysteries have moved from the shelves since The Winter Queen was first published in Russia five years ago.

The setting for this first one is Tsarist Russia, in 1876, with the threat of Nihilist bombs lurking. A young aristocrat shoots his head off in front of a pretty girl in Moscow's Alexandrovsky park. When a hunched, monied, pimply student watches the suicide from across the street, the victim seems to have a double.

Fandorin goes to work. When is a suicide not a suicide? When a young man has been worked on. Look at his will. What's the clue? When his love for a woman went unrequited, he left his fortune to an orphanage.

Though an orphan himself, the genial Fandorin is slow to see the vital connection. He's the kind of chap who loves everyone until they try to kill him. He respects his superiors and his country. He has class, thanks to an English nanny who taught him good habits and foreign languages. But because his dead father gambled every penny away, he has to start work as a humble Gogolian clerk.

On the other hand, intelligence and guts will out. Soon, he is professionally where he ought to be by birth, hobnobbing with the rich and idle, watching men ruin themselves over women and cards. He meets his own passing double, a caricature of a young and corruptible Tolstoyan aristocrat, and they compete for the attention of the mysterious Amalia.

The Byron corset is abandoned and the Russian detective pursues this female runaway to London. His new boss encourages him. All his superiors like Fandorin and give him his head – or is it enough rope to hang himself?

The London trip entails shinning up drainpipes and ivy, pushing his way in through English windows (pretty unlikely English window technology!) and getting tied up in a sack and thrown in the Thames.

Fandorin has low-key Superman tricks up his sleeve, like a Yogic capacity to hold his breath, so of course he escapes. Things only really get nasty when he gets back to Russia, solves the case and gets married.

Contemporary Russia is a huge book market, and a seven-figure readership is a misleading statistic. But you could do worse than take this novel to the beach and let yourself be shocked by its concluding pages, when faint literary parody metamorphoses into timeless global conspiracy. It's a parable about the death of hope and innocence, as well as an effectively concocted story.

Lesley Chamberlain's novel 'Girl in a Garden' will be published in July

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