Scholar Turned Novelist Wields 19th-Century Nunchucks


Part Sherlock Holmes, part martial-arts hero, detective Erast Fandorin is back on the case in The Death of Achilles, the fourth installment of his adventures to be translated into English. Set mainly in 19th-century Russia, the series follows the –colorful exploits of Fandorin, a dashing young civil servant whose formidable powers of deduction enable him to solve mysteries wherever he goes, from the glittering ballrooms of high society to the slums of St. Petersburg. Here he returns to Moscow, after a prolonged diplomatic mission in Tokyo, to investigate the suspicious death of his old friend General Sobolev. Alternately helped and hindered by a smorgasbord of suspectsSobolev’s fellow officers, a power-hungry police chief, a midget safecracker, and a glamorous chanteuse—Fandorin uncovers a far-reaching conspiracy that threatens the stability of Mother Russia herself.

Bestsellers in their homeland, the Fandorin novels have made author Grigory Chkhartishvili a celebrity. Formerly an unknown academic specializing in Japanese literature, Chkhartishvili chose his nom de plume (“B. Akunin”) as a nod to the 19th-century anarchist and philosopher Mikhail Bakunin. But apart from the occasional name check of Pushkin or Tolstoy, the series has few intellectual pretensions, instead offering straightforward detective thrills in a period setting. In Fandorin, Akunin too often relies on genre clichés like catchphrases (the sleuth enumerates clues by announcing, “That is one,” “That is two,” etc.) and character tics (he has a stammer). Still, The Death of Achilles is Akunin’s paciest work yet—if perhaps his most ludicrous. Already a master of disguise, Fandorin now wields throwing stars and nunchakus, practices jujitsu and calligraphy, and is accompanied throughout by a faithful Japanese manservant/sidekick named Masa. Who knew 1880s Russia was so ninja-tastic?