B. Akunin goes retro

Boris Akunin: Murder on the Leviathan, Phoenix, 2004

Writers of historical detective novels have a dilemma: Should their protagonist be modern (in the sense that he or she is rational, humanist, evidence-based, and not hampered by the superstitions of the day) or saddled with contemporary racial, scientific and historical prejudices? Umberto Eco’s Thomas of Ockam (in The Name of the Rose), for instance, has been criticised as almost superhumanely modern for the 14th century.

B. Akunin’s hero Erast Fandorin strikes a nice balance, and I look forward to reading more of the books about him. The Leviathan is a classical (a tad bit too classical, actually) tale in the tradition of Agatha Christie, with a limited set of suspects, each with their own secrets that eventually come out, a conspiracy, and a bumbling police detective. The plot is fantastic, but I get a little bit annoyed with the breaking of one of the key rules of the classical crime novel: Thou shalt not introduce evidence the reader does not have access to as part of the explanation. Furthermore, I found the Parisian police inspector a tad bit too bumbling to be believable, and the alternative theories offered a bit too contrived.

But these are minor annoyances: B. Akunin cheats a little, but does even begin to sink to the Dan Brownish levels. I at first found the Japanese participant a little hard to believe, but since the author is a expert on historical Japan I will take him at his word. And the Victorian pace and language of the novel is not irritating, simply because it is done consistently and with great care. What the novel lack in tightness of the plot and terseness of description it makes up for in richness of characters and liveliness of villains. More Sherlock Holmes than Miss Maple.

In Norway, the Easter vacation is often spent reading mysteries – a tradition borne from skiing holidays spent in log cabins with bad weather and lack of electricity. I could think of worse company than B. Akunin’s books, especially as a replacement of the musty Agatha Christie volumes commonly found there.