Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Port of Call


Like a sail waiting for summer
I'm always...
Always always thinking about you
"Like A Sail Waiting For Summer" (ZARD)

I had to chuckle a little when I first saw the name "Akunin", as it means "villain" in Japanese. I don't know anything about Russian pronouncation by the way, but in Japanese, the name "Akunin" is written with a longated "u" (Akuunin), which at least sounds less evil in Japanese.

The massacre in Lord Littleby's residence in Paris in 1878 was dubbed 'the Crime of the Century' in the newspapers and that was perhaps the perfect description. On the first floor, seven servants and two children of the servants were poisoned. On the second floor, Lord Littleby himself had been cruelly bludgeoned to death with a golden statuette of Shiva, which was also taken away by the murderer. The murderer however accidently left a special golden badge in the crime scene, which was more than enough for Gustave Gauche of the French police. After finding out that the badge was a present to all first-class passengers of the passenger ship the Leviathan, Gauche deduces the murderer must be one of the passengers and he too boards the ship in search of his "client." Paying special attention to those who appear not be in possession of their badge anymore, Gauche quickly limits the number of suspects to a limited number, including a Japanese army officer, an English aristocrat and a Russian diplomat called Erast Fandorin. However, the trip is a long one and the murderer responsible of ''the Crime of the Century'  has more than one surprise left for their fellow passengers in Boris Akunin's Leviathan (1998)

Leviathan, or Murder on the Leviathan as it's known in English releases, is the third novel in Russian novelist Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin series and my first encounter with both the writer and the series. Apparently, Akunin conceived the Erast Fandorin series as a summary of the complete mystery genre: each volume takes on another of the many subgenres of the wider mystery genre, for example a spy-mystery, comical mystery etcetera. Leviathan is the one most interesting for this blog, as it is what is described as an "Agatha Christie-style" novel, with a whodunnit plot set in an exotic place.

While Christie was not as cozy as some appear to be thinking, nine people poisoned and another man beaten to death in one go is still rather a bit more brutal than Christie usually was though.

I enjoyed Leviathan a lot, almost surprisingly so. Most of all, it's really well-written story. The story starts off with some newspaper clippings on 'the Crime of the Century', and then the narration 'zaps' between Gauche and all of his suspects. The personalities of each of the characters really shine throught in the parts they narrate and it's quite fun to see the same event through different eyes. The characters are all a bit larger-than-life and coupled with the setting on the Leviathan, it really invokes a "Classic Detective Story" vibe.

I do have to admit that the overall mystery plot is not that surprising; I think a lot of people will correctly guess who Gauche's target is after a while, because at times Akunin is playing a bit too close to the genre conventions and as a detective story. I can't say that Leviathan had something truly surprising to offer. Yes, it was fun, and yes, it follows the genre conventions in an adequate way, but don't expect an Evil Under the Sun or Murder on the Orient Express from this. The writing does help a lot in making this book memorable though.

Leviathan opens with a summary of the 'Crime of the Century' set in Paris and while there are no notes, I am pretty sure it's based on the infamous Teigin Case that happened in Tokyo, 1948. A man claiming to be from the Public Health Department showed up at the Teikoku Bank (Teigin), saying he was ordered by the US occupation troops to inoculate the staff against a sudden outbreak of dysentery. The staff-members were all given a pill and a liquid, which they took at the same time on the mark of the man. The liquid, however, turned out to be a cyanide solution and while everyone was incapitated, the man ran away with a fortune  (I wrote a little on the case at Criminal Element). The case would serve as an inspiration for several stories, like one by Matsumoto Seichou, Yokomizo Seishi's Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku or Ellery Queen's real crime short story Tokyo’s Greatest Bank Robbery. It's funny to see how the Teigin Case also inspired a Russian writer.

Anyway, Leviathan was a very amusing read. The set-up, like the pay-off, is very classic and while it is not particularly original in terms of mystery, the writing is sharp and funny and overall, the reader should be left satisfied. I am not sure if I'll read more of the series though: like I said, Leviathan was the book most fitting to my own interests, with other subgenres used in the Erast Fandorin series, like the spy-thriller, just not as appealing to me as a reader.

Original Russian title(s): Борис Акунин "Левиафан"


  1. Hello, Ho-ling!
    Russian resident here, what a surprise it is - to see the review of a Russian book on your blog.

    Akunin is a very popular author here, and Erast Fandorin is his most famous series. There are 14 books out now and 15th is supposed to be the last. I read all of them and can call myself a fan, I suppose.

    But for me Akunin is not only an author of mystery and historical fiction. He knows Japanese (yes, his pen-name isn't random) and has translated a huge number of books, among them a lot of mystery novels and detective anthologies. That was back in the 80-90s, now he's concentrated on his own books. But it didn's stop him from helping one company to choose a number of interesting foreign mystery novels to publish a few years back. Among them were The Devotion of Suspect X and the first book about Galileo (it's not available in English, right?), Inugami Clan and couple other Kindaichi books.

    Akunin knows a lot about Japan, and it really shows in Erast Fandorin series. In Leviathan Erast is coming to Japan. Let me tell you that this country will leave a big, HUGE impression on him...

    But that's enough of me. Sorry for this outburst, I was just really surprised to see the Evil Man of modern Russian literature here, haha.

    Cheers, and thanks as always for your writing and thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I usually don't really check up on authors for my reviews, as I want to focus on the work itself, but now I know I really should've read up more on Akunin! I guess that also explains why the Crime of the Century sounded so familiar!

      Erast's adventures in Japan sound tempting, so I might pick those books up later and then see where it'll go from there :)

  2. Well, in the next book Erast is already returning to Russia. Readers found out what happened to him in Japan only in 10th book (The Diamond Chariot).

    11th book is a short story collection which depicts Fandorin's adventures all around the world, there is a Japanese one too.

    P.S. 11th book also has story about Erast meeting in England an old lady who is basically a Miss Marple. There is also a story (I prefer to call it a fanfic) about Fandorin's encounter with a certain sleuth from Baker Street and a certain French master thief...

    1. Thanks! It appears the series was only published in English up until The Diamond Chariot. The 11th book (which sounds really fun, especially as I like short stories better than novels actually0 has been published in German, but is out-of-print now, so it might take a while to get my hands on it... anyway, I'll put the titles on my to-read list :)

  3. Hmm how would you rate murder on orient express from 1-10? I've only seen the Poirot series's adaptation of it and it was one of if not the best directed episodes of the series.

    1. Pfft, I really hate rating things on a scale, so I'd say it's a really solid story. It's actually a very funny story with a captivating atmosphere, as it features so many unique characters. The downside is that it's very reliant on the (now famous) ending, and it can be a bit slow if you're looking for a more energetic plot, as the middle part is really just a long interrogation sequence with all the suspects.

      The TV series adaptation... I didn't really like. It was waaaaaay too heavy. Sure, the secondary plot (motive) ties to heavy material, but the book also has those typical Christie comedy dialogues.

  4. Finally figured out why I couldn't comment on Blogger blogs, so I can at last comment on your posts. Hooray!
    I am a big fan of Akunin's Erast Fandorin and Sister Pelagia series and pleased you enjoyed this one. It is his most GAD like novel, though I wonder if you have ever considered trying one of the Pelagia novels?
    Never knew that Akunin meant "villain" - though it does seem very apt given his crime writing. He does send Fandorin to Japan and The Diamond Chariot, the 10th in the series is largely situated in Japan and is one of my all time favourites from the series. Best ending ever.

    1. Glad to have you here! You are the third person to mention The Diamond Chariot in the comments now, so I really should try it out :D I hadn't even heard of Sister Pelagia to be honest, but a glance at the Wikipedia page seems promising, so that will go on the never-ending list too!

    2. haha yeah there are always too many books and never enough time to read them all.
      If you're going to try the Pelagia books I'd recommend reading them in book order, as each story follows on from the next and the final one has one heck of an ending so you wouldn't want to start with it.
      The Diamond Chariot is long (500 pages), but it is one of the few books I have read where I have got to the end and wished there was more to read.

  5. I totally think you should read the whole Fandorin cycle. It is very Japanese-oriented, especially the Diamond Chariot, and has just been completed. Unfortunately, the best, I think, of the books of the cycle, The Jade Rosary, was blatantly skipped in the English translation, being a shorty story collection. Perhaps, the genre of the stories (pastiche / homage) was too copyright-dangerous? But it has an exquisite Fandorin vs. Holmes vs. Lupin showdown.

    1. There's a German edition of The Jade Rosary which I could read, so at least I don't have to learn Russian ;) I had expected the Japanese to be a bit further with their translations, but they are surprisingly not very far.