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Holmes in Imperial Russia: The World of Erast Petrovich Fandorin (IANS Column: Bookends)

Human history, like it or not, cannot be completely undone. Some may crave (usually imagined) a golden past of homogeneity and tradition, but at best can only recreate its essence. Take Imperial Russia, for example.

Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, may be argued to be as autocratic, expansionist and opaque as imperial Russia under the Romanovs, but significant changes have taken place over the years. This was at least not by the Bolsheviks who wiped out the “ancient regime”, they were pretty thorough. Changing times and circumstances, political, social, economic and technological norms have done the rest.

Tsar Russia, wealthy aristocratic Russia, endless tyranny, fatalism, nihilism and a wide social and economic gulf that fostered unstoppable revolutionary fervor manifested in a series of assassinations, bombings and conspiracies. , now found in the annals of history.

But human ingenuity has ensured another way to relive the past. It is the medium of historical fiction.

A flavor of Tsarist Russia can be found in the rich literature of this period, from the Golden Age of Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky, to Count Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak. but there are many writers. -Russian — has treated this period with great enthusiasm in all genres, especially historical detective stories.

Prominent among Russian writers is Grigori Charvovich Chakartishvili, aka Boris Akunin, an expert on the Soviet/Russian language of Georgian descent, author of the Fandorin series of historical detective stories. is a person.

Detective fiction has always been a favorite of Russian readers — Sherlock Holmes was the most popular — but in the post-Soviet turmoil it fell to the typical pulp — full of sex and gore. Chkhartishvili’s wife was also a fan of these, but had to read them in secret.

It was his desire to write a book that elevated the detective genre and that no one was shy about, and reading it inspired him, an otherwise expert in Japanese language and culture, to turn his hand to it. became.

Chkhartishvili — a name quite difficult to pronounce for English readers — is the pseudonym Akunin (meaning “great villain” in Japanese, but translated by the authors as “the villain who makes his own rules”) for the series, which includes 13 complete series. changed to mean). Nearly 50 years of full-length books, two collections of short stories, and one stage play, from the last quarter of the 19th century to the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Civil War.

Eloquent writing (which often appears in translation), unique characters, an intelligent and intricately plotted mystery, and a host of references to Russian history and literature make the series a clear winner either way. But Akunin went one step further. Each of the 16 books pays homage to a specific subset of the detective mystery genre, including terrorist conspiracies, spy hunts, closed-circle murders, serial killers, government conspiracies, and political crimes.

Before we look at some works, let’s take a look at our hero Erast Petrovich Fandorin. When we first met him in Azazel (1998), he was still an enterprising and energetic junior, a Moscow CID operative. His father was doing well in the railroad boom, but lost everything in the banking boom and passed away.

However, Fandorin is born lucky and suspects that it is a way of fate that compensates for his father’s very unlucky fate. Except for her gray hair), she always dresses fashionably.

On the other hand, he has a tendency to stutter (caused by the same reason his temples turn grey), but this disappears at key moments, leaving the person he’s talking to uneasy or very angry. And he doesn’t have a specific catchphrase, but instead has a habit of listing his reasoning like “That’s one, that’s two, that’s three.” Afterwards, he also developed the habit of clicking on the jade rosary while thinking or agitated.

“The Winter Queen” follows his tireless investigation of a young Moscow playboy that uncovers a diabolical conspiracy that brings him personal tragedy.

In The Turkish Gambit (1998, English 2005), Fandorin enlisted as a volunteer in Bulgaria during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and is still suffering from the losses suffered at the end of the first volume. Counterintelligence to stop effective Turkish espionage.

“Murder on the Leviathan” (1998; English 2004) is a pure mystery set in 1877 and follows the murder in Paris of an English lord, seven of his servants and two of the servant’s children. to start. .

A single clue is found from the scene, pointing to the perpetrator as a first-class passenger on a ship bound for Calcutta. come across someone. A young Russian heading to a Japanese diplomat.

Our hero, The Last One, debunks an incompetent cop’s theory about the killer’s identity and is forced to find the killer himself — as the cop and several others join the list of victims. The ending is not what you would expect.

In the next “Death of Achilles” (1998; English version 2005), Fandorin returns to Moscow from his service in Japan, becomes embroiled in the investigation into the death of a famous general, and is found dead in his hotel room. Found, but suspected of some cheating. —Specifying the subgenre would be a spoiler.

What he did in Japan and what happened to him is revealed for the first time in the second half of volume 10, in the very dark “The Diamond Chariot” (2003; English 2011).

Among the remainder of the series, political themes appear in The State Counselor (1999; English 2008). This is one of the best accounts of revolutionary activity in pre-1917 Russia and the dark atmosphere in which they operated. “Coronation” (2000, English version 2009) relates to the accession of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, to his weakness that would destroy him, his family and the dynasty some twenty years later. is clarified. “Black City” (2012; English 2018) once again invites Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries to a slightly tragic end. .

Pure crime was the focus of Special Assignments (1999), basically two novels about a gang of clever crooks and Jack the Ripper of Moscow, and She Lover of Death (2001; 2009) and “He Lover of Death” (2001; English 2010) are intertwined with the influence of Charles Dickens, and “All the World’s a Stage” (2009; English 2018) is “The Phantom of the Opera”. It’s probably the only happy ending, including a hint to. our hero.

The puzzling thing is that two collections of short stories and novels, “The Jade Rosary” (2006) and “Planet Water” (2015), bridge the gaps in his life, exploring his adventures in America and Sherlock Holmes — Never translated into English. I can only hope that this shortcoming will be rectified soon.

(Vikas Datta can be reached at vikas.d@ians.in)

Holmes in Imperial Russia: The World of Erast Petrovich Fandorin (IANS Column: Bookends)

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