Member Name: SueMagee
Murder on the Leviathan - Boris Akunin
Advantages: It's a pastiche and very cleverly done.
Disadvantages: You might not like pastiche.
My daughter visited me recently and seemed unable to take her nose out of the book she’d 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 couldn’t 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. That’s 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 Fandorin’s character if I’d read The Winter Queen first but the omission didn’t 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 Christie’s Hercule Poirot. None of the characters are rounded – they’re 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; you’ve got to turn the book on its side to read the entries and we’re 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 Gauche’s theories as to who had committed the murders put me in mind of Sherlock Holmes. I think this is what Akunin intended; he’s 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.
I’m not usually keen on translations of novels as they’re frequently clunky and miss the subtleties of the original work. The highest praise I can give (seeing as I couldn’t read the book in the original Russian) is to say that I wouldn’t 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, it’s difficult to split the style of the author from the style of the translator, but this book did make for very easy reading, which isn’t 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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. It’s 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 can’t 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
Summary: If you like crime novels it's excellent, thought-provoking entertainment.