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Following the murder of Lord Littleby, an art collector, and his servants in Paris in 1878, Commissioner Gauche of the French police force is determined to track down the murderer. There is one clue left at the scene - a badge in the shape of a whale that is only to be worn by first-class passengers on the maiden voyage of the steamship known as the Leviathan. Gauche therefore decides to take the voyage himself, to track down the one passenger who doesn't have a badge. This is not as easy as it seems, because there is more than one first-class passenger who doesn't appear to have a badge. Gauche narrows the passengers down to ten, including Erast Fandorin, a Russian diplomat, who also happens to be a detective. Before long, Fandorin, who is convinced that Gauche is on the wrong tracks, starts his own investigation. Will he be able to beat Gauche to the truth? Or will the murderer get to him first?
Boris Akunin is a Russian author, whose series of books featuring his fictional detective, Erast Fandorin, have become best-sellers across the world. Fandorin is certainly an original creation - at least to my eyes. He has been feted as a Russian Sherlock Holmes and, although I think that is over-generous praise, there are certainly elements of Holmes, as well as Hercule Poirot, but with a distinct hint of mickey-taking thrown in for good measure. In this book, he comes across as being rather supercilious creature, whose role is kept out of the limelight for much of the story. A much better introduction to him as a character is The Winter Queen, the first book in the series. Nevertheless, I really liked his role here, precisely because he isn't quite so obvious. A little of Erast Fandorin can go a very long way. Although very young, he is very sure of himself and this can become a little tedious after a while.
The other characters are largely caricatures - usually funny, sometime a little embarrassing. Gauche is described as a complete buffoon, despite the fact that he is one of the most famous French detectives of his time. I have read a suggestion that he is based on Inspector Closeau - and that is very similar to my view of him, although he is not as funny. The other passengers include an English Lord, who is completely loopy in that eccentric upper class British way; a Japanese army officer, who is described as being inscrutable, yet is easily embarrassed; an apparently ordinary Italian Doctor and his wife and a middle-aged woman who has suddenly become wealthy. I loved the Japanese army officer, Aono, myself. He proves to have a wonderful wit and it probably one of the most normal of the passengers, although he certainly has his idiosyncracies. Akunin manages to keep the caricatures the right side of funny - they never become offensive, and, after all, it isn't as though he picks on one particular nationality!
The story could almost have come straight out of the Agatha Christie stable. It is a typical 'closed room' story, in that only a certain number of people are suspects. Anyone who has read 'Death on the Nile' will see distinct parallels here; although Akunin's main murder took place before the suspects were gathered together on board, the atmosphere and the mixture of different personalities and backgrounds are very Christie-like. I really enjoyed the story. There are any number of possibilities, despite the small number of suspects, and very little is given away until later on in the book. When the denouement comes, I really didn't seen it coming and I doubt many other people would either. It is a result that ties up all the ends neatly, which is exactly what I like in my crime fiction, and is definitely very worthy of any comparisons with Agatha Christies' work.
The book is well-written, and it must be noted that the translator, Andrew Bromfield, has done a truly stupendous job of ensuring that the language flows properly. All too often, translated works can be grammatically correct, yet somehow appear wooden. There is no such problem here. Any stiffness in the dialogue is down to the social expectations of the time and is entirely suitable for the book. To be able to translate Akunin's complicated story and wit so eloquently must have been a real labour of love and he deserves as much praise as the author.
My only real criticism of the book is that it is very 'busy'. I think it can add layers to a story when more than one character has the chance to express their point of view. However, it is possible to go overboard, and like Jodi Picoult, I think Akunin has done just that. There are newspaper articles, snatches of Aono's diary, bits of the English aristocrat's letter to his wife and other bits and pieces. I found this irritating and distracting, especially with the different fonts and the need, on occasion, to actually have to turn the book around to read it. I would personally have preferred Akunin to stick to maybe one or two characters, or at least stick to the third person, rather than the constant changes in style. However, some people may find that it actually encourages them to keep reading, so I suppose it is a matter of personal choice.
Overall, I enjoyed this book; it is probably my favourite of the series so far and I've read it three times now. Certainly, I didn't enjoy Turkish Gambit and The Death of Achilles anywhere near as much, although The Winter Queen was also very good. If you're a fan of crime fiction and are looking for something a little bit different, then it is most certainly worth giving this book a go. Don't be put off by the fact that it is a translation, because that really doesn't come across in the narrative. Recommended.
The book is available from Amazon for £5.09. Published by Pheonix, it has 256 pages. ISBN-10: 0753818434
My daughter visited me recently and seemed unable to take her nose out of the book shed brought with her. Before she left she passed it to me with the suggestion that I might enjoy it.
I glanced at it: a book translated from the original Russian about a fictional murder which took place in Paris in 1878 and openly described as pastiche? I thought not, but dropped it on the pile of books waiting to be read. Then came the night when there was nothing else to read. I picked it up and couldnt put it down.
On a March evening in 1878 Lord Littleby is found battered to death in his Paris home. His eight servants and two of their children are found to have died from lethal injections. A heavy gold statue was wrapped in a shawl and stolen from the house, but a clue left at the scene of the crime suggests that the murderer is about to sail on the maiden voyage of a luxury liner, the Leviathan, and Commissioner Gauche of the French police joins the ship to investigate the deaths.
This is a classic closed room murder mystery and as is usual with such books a convincing case can be made for any one of the limited number of suspects to have committed the murder. In this case the policeman, Papa Gauche, eliminates all but ten passengers on the Leviathan and they are forced to eat every meal together on the voyage to India. I thought there was a weakness in the plot when the ten suspects were chosen as the selection seemed to be only little better than random. Thats me being picky though. It is pastiche after all and there were moments of laugh-out-loud humour in the course of the selection.
One of the suspects is Erast Fandorin, a Russian diplomat. Fandorin has appeared as an investigator in an earlier Akunin novel, The Winter Queen. I suspect that I might have understood more about Fandorins character if Id read The Winter Queen first but the omission didnt spoil my enjoyment of the book. The French policeman, an Investigator for Especially Important Crimes, is a cross between Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame and Agatha Christies Hercule Poirot. None of the characters are rounded theyre all extremes of their type, including the mad baronet, the aging spinster, a rather secretive Japanese army officer and the pregnant and garrulous wife of a Swiss banker.
The telling of the story is done from the viewpoint of the individual passengers. We read the daily letters written by the baronet to his wife. The Japanese officer writes in his diary; youve got to turn the book on its side to read the entries and were shown newspaper clippings which describe the original murder scene. I began by finding the changes slightly irritating, but quickly found that they added to the atmosphere of the book. I felt as though I was there.
Fandorin is the hero of the book. His debunking of the self-important Papa Gauches theories as to who had committed the murders put me in mind of Sherlock Holmes. I think this is what Akunin intended; hes a well-read and learned man and just occasionally I had the feeling that he was determined that I would not finish the book without realising the breadth of his knowledge. Every police-procedural crime novel has its red herrings, but there were a few in this book that were pure self-indulgence.
Im not usually keen on translations of novels as theyre frequently clunky and miss the subtleties of the original work. The highest praise I can give (seeing as I couldnt read the book in the original Russian) is to say that I wouldnt have suspected that this is a translation. The translator, Andrew Bromfield, has done a superb job and I would have no hesitation in reading any of his other work. Obviously, its difficult to split the style of the author from the style of the translator, but this book did make for very easy reading, which isnt always the case with books set in the last-but-one century. The mannerisms and social customs of the time are captured perfectly.
Apart from my minor quibble about the selection of the suspects I thought the plot was faultless. Early on I couldnt see how the death of ten people from lethal injections could be explained convincingly, but it was and the evidence had been before my eyes all the time. I didnt guess who the killer was, but the denouement was cleverly done and was very satisfying.
Would I recommend the book? Yes, I would, without hesitation. Its carefully researched, clever, well-written and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. I read it in two sittings and was sorry when I turned the last page. Mother and daughter cant both be wrong, now, can they?
Murder on the Leviathan: Paperback published 21 October 2004
Price: £6.99 but currently available on Amazon for £5.59