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Recommended by [profile] domficfan. This is the third of the Erast Fandorin series of mystery novels, and the library has not as yet consented to cough up the first two, so I decided to start here, and indeed it is quite possible to start with this book.

So the awesome things about this are twofold: Erast Fandorin, our detective; and the setting. The setting is Bulgaria in 1877, in the middle of the Russo-Turkish War. Erast Fandorin is an occasional policeman, occasional soldier, occasional diplomat, and one of those quietly understatedly competent people who actually run things. Amazingly enough, he isn't annoying, either. And I cannot overemphasize the interest of the setting. It's not a war I know much about, but it's a fascinating mixture of medieval and modern tech, everyone getting everywhere on trains but still fighting occasional bandits in the backcountry, discussing people one generation back who were kidnapped by pirates in parts of the Mediterranean, getting all the Paris papers every morning off the telegraph.

The mystery plot, on the other hand, might literally have been written by Agatha Christie. It's exactly the way she thinks. It's a perfectly competent mystery plot, with the usual high treason and murder, and it lends an odd air of cognitive dissonance because this was not, necessarily, where one was expecting to see it. I think it works. Maybe? Serious cognitive dissonance! It's like Agatha Christie started writing Dorothy Dunnett and it takes a bit of work to get my head around. Actually, the previous sentence summarizes fairly well both what I liked and what I didn't about this book.

I am also decidedly unsure about the young female narrator who is clearly a character specific to this particular novel, as there are ways in which she is very young and ways in which she is very culture-bound; and this means I cannot actually tell whether I am annoyed about how Akunin portrays women as I must go find another woman portrayed by Akunin to see whether that one is any different. At any rate, there is only one woman in this book, though, given the setting, that makes some sense. And she doesn't do that much, but she is also clearly one of those people designed, by their own basic natures, not to do that much. I need a larger sample size. I shall probably go back and try to find one of the first two books, as in fact one does not find out much about them from this-- things I think must have been in there are alluded to, but not described in detail. This works as a stand-alone despite being the third in a thirteen-book series.

The translation, by Andrew Bromfield, is perfectly workmanlike.

I note also that there have been Russian films of the first three books and an English-language film of the first due anytime now, and I may have to hunt those down whether I decide I really like these or not, as I cannot imagine a book more suited to make a very interesting movie. It is entirely possible I'd like a movie better than the book. It would rather depend on who played Erast Fandorin.


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