THE NOTION THAT detective fiction is a second-rate enterprise had long held sway in literary studies: its structure is formulaic, the thinking went, and its plots race toward the solution with little regard for character development or style. But in the past few decades the genre has gained increasing respect; a number of detective authors have been able to achieve popular success while winning scholarly recognition. In the English-speaking world, one such writer is P. D. James, best known for her Adam Dalgliesh series. Her work, replete with psychological insight and expertly crafted prose, proves that detective novels can be literary fiction — with a murder or two thrown in for good measure. In Russia, no author has proved detective fiction’s literary worthiness as definitively as Boris Akunin, pseudonym of Grigory Chkhartishvili. His most famous series stars the detective Erast Fandorin, and The State Counsellor (Statskii sovetnik, 1999) is its sixth installment; like the other five, it has now been expertly translated into English by Andrew Bromfield.
One of the most famous contemporary Russian writers, Akunin is also a literary scholar, critic, and translator of Japanese literature, whose faultless intellectual pedigree manifests itself in the highbrow aspirations of his fiction. The volumes in his three detective series are invariably best sellers, and a number of them, including The State Counsellor, have been adapted for the screen. At the same time, he has won or been nominated for prestigious literary prizes, a recognition of artistic merit that largely eludes writers of detective fiction. Akunin himself stresses that his aim is to produce intelligent work, and, indeed, his reputation in Russia is that of a writer for the intellectual classes, whose members are not embarrassed to admit that they greatly enjoy reading his tales of murder.
This has much to do with the manner in which these tales are told. Akunin’s project for the Fandorin series is ambitiously creative: he fashions each text as a different subgenre of detective fiction. The first in the series, for instance — The Winter Queen — is a “conspiracy mystery,” while the third, Murder on the Leviathan, is a “locked-room mystery” à la Agatha Christie. All the novels are set in the late Imperial period, between the 1870s and the Revolution in 1917, and provide readers with a detailed and pleasantly nostalgic picture of life in old Moscow, along with occasional forays into other non-Russian locales. Akunin’s homage to the period extends to the language in which the works are written, a classical Russian style reminiscent of Tolstoy’s and Turgenev’s, and devoid of the stylizations and slang that mark the texts of many of his post-Soviet peers. The most intellectually rigorous aspect of Akunin’s engagement with the 19th century is the panoply of intertextual allusions that extends through his texts: The Winter Queen is, to a large extent, a dialogue with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and a nod to Nikolai Karamzin’s sentimentalist tale “Poor Liza.” This not only rewards readers who can pick up on the references, but also burnishes the author’s “postmodernist” credentials.
The State Counsellor is a “political mystery” that references, among other texts, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 utopian novel-cum-handbook for Russian radicals, What Is To Be Done? State Counsellor Fandorin has been tasked with stopping the killings of highly placed representatives of the Russian Empire by nihilist revolutionaries — which was very much a pressing issue in the second half of the 19th century. The political terrorist group People’s Will, for instance, carried out a number of acts of violence against the regime, most notably the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. By 1891, the year in which The State Counsellor is set, most of the members of People’s Will had been arrested or killed, and the violence had died down. But in Akunin’s novel, a man named Green — an admirer of People’s Will and the leader of the small but deadly Combat Group — has reignited his predecessors’ violent campaign, and now Moscow once again finds itself in the grip of revolutionary terror.
The novel opens with Green’s fatal stabbing of Khrapov, the newly appointed governor general of Siberia, after gaining access to the general’s train compartment by masquerading as Fandorin, who has been entrusted with the general’s security in Moscow. The ease with which Green gains access to Khrapov’s closely guarded compartment is soon explained: for the last several months, he has been receiving mysterious notes signed with the initials “TG,” which have revealed the whereabouts of one or another official, and have instructed Green on how to eliminate them. The fact that the notes are not sent by mail but rather left in places where Green simply finds them — in a coat pocket, on the table, on the floor by an open window — suggests they are written by someone in close proximity to the Combat Group, but Green cannot ascertain the who nor, equally significantly, the why. Although the police hunt for Combat Group members makes up most of the novel’s action, the crux of the mystery is not who killed Khrapov, which readers find out right away, but rather the identity and motives of TG. And the solution to that results in momentous consequences for the novel’s cast of characters, including Fandorin.
As befits a political thriller set during this period in Russia’s history, Akunin’s characters are split into two camps engaged in an epic power struggle: supporters of the state and revolutionaries attempting to, quite literally, blow it up. Chief among the former is Fandorin, possessed of both unimpeachable integrity and an extraordinary intelligence, which allows him to solve crimes others cannot. Aiding — or, more often, hindering — him in this novel are the various heads and agents from the Office of Gendarmes and the Department of Security (the Okhranka), whose dense web of interrelationships is sometimes hard to keep straight. Further disgruntling Fandorin is Prince Pozharsky, “deputy director of the Police Department,” a rising star in charge of the country’s political investigations and a self-promoting, largely unprincipled man. Pozharsky arrives from the then capital, St. Petersburg, to take over the investigation from Fandorin and his boss and patron, Prince Vladimir Andreevich Dolgorukoi, governor general of Moscow, since Khrapov was killed on the latter’s watch. Battling the police are the Combat Group nihilists, including two women: Julie, a beautiful madam whose fraternizing with high-ranking clients puts her in possession of much useful information, and Needle, the party courier, who performs vital tasks such as finding the revolutionaries places to stay and carrying communications between them. Despite certain gender clichés in the portrayal of female characters, Akunin is factually accurate here: women played a very significant role in Russian revolutionary circles, often taking violent action themselves (Vera Zasulich, Vera Figner, and Sophia Perovskaya, to name just three). Blurring the lines between the two sides are double agents and former revolutionaries turned police informants. Betrayals among members of both camps are a recurring plot element in The State Counsellor, as they were in the history of the revolutionary movement.
In an echo of the realist “novels of ideas” by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, which foregrounded major social and philosophical issues, The State Counsellor features a good deal of discussion of what kind of political system Russia needs and what it would take to establish it — in short, what is to be done. For Pozharsky, the end goal of defending the state justifies any below-board means of doing so, because, as he opines, “Our state is unjust and immoral. But better a state like that then rebellion, bloodshed and chaos.” Yet Pozharsky is both highly cynical and extremely opportunistic; his desire to protect Russia is inextricable from his desire to advance to the highest echelons of power, with no regard for those who stand in the way. Akunin avoids easy categorizations, and while his novel is squarely on the side of law and order, it is also sympathetic to the revolutionaries’ desire to undo a regime that benefited the upper classes at the expense of the impoverished and circumscribed masses; their goals are just, even if their methods are not.
Fandorin becomes romantically involved with Esfir Litvinova, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family (which had to convert to Orthodoxy to secure its success) and a nihilist sympathizer (many nihilists came from the upper classes). When she angrily reads out various newspaper items — the Ministry of Education denying Jews entry to universities, a spreading famine being “prayed away” by church leaders — Fandorin cannot counter her arguments. He recognizes that, “on the whole, she was right.” While some of the nihilists are unscrupulous opportunists, others, like Green and Needle, are genuinely concerned with ameliorating Russian society. Akunin alternates the novel’s perspective between Fandorin and Green, presenting a backstory for the latter that explains, without in the least excusing, Green’s choosing violence as the means of reorganizing the system. As was the case for many revolutionaries, Green, born Grigory Grinberg, is Jewish and has been exposed to his share of systemic, violent Russian anti-Semitism. The final straw is a pogrom in his parents’ village, which he avenges single-handedly; after several arrests and escapes, he becomes a hardened revolutionary. Acknowledging the contradictions at the heart of Russian society, Fandorin gloomily muses on “Russia’s eternal misfortune. Everything in it is topsy-turvy. Good is defended by fools and scoundrels, evil is served by martyrs and heroes.” At the same time, Fandorin himself is a shining counterexample of this sentiment. He is, as he says with his characteristic stutter, “on the side of the l-law.” In one instance, he refuses to allow Okhranka officials to use illegal methods to arrest a circle of revolutionaries; this is where he first meets Esfir. He tirelessly tracks down the mysterious TG and attempts to bring the truth to light, regardless of the cost to himself.
The State Counsellor may not be the best entry in the Fandorin series, with a solution that, at a certain point, becomes rather obvious. Likewise, as in other Fandorin mysteries, the detective’s odds-defying luck in escaping potentially deadly situations — in this case, a jump from an immense height as instructed by the teachings of the Buddha Amida, which is fortuitously broken by a standing snowbank — requires a radical suspension of disbelief. Yet even when not at his best, Akunin is still remarkably good, producing an intelligent and entertaining detective novel that is simultaneously an excursion into Russian history and culture. While one does not need to read the series in order, detective fiction purists will want to start with The Winter Queen, working their way up to, and continuing beyond, The State Counsellor. This would lend them a more complete understanding of Fandorin’s universe, which includes some important recurring characters, and an even fuller appreciation of Akunin’s impressive and highly literary project.