Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin series has been spectacularly successful in Russia. Akunin's books have sold millions of copies there. Akunin, whose real name is Grigori Chkhartisvili, was born in (Soviet) Georgia. He grew up in Kazakhstan and then Moscow. Highly educated, Akunin was a student of linguistics, editor of a scholarly literary journal and a Japanese-Russian translator. He turned to writing these stories at age 40 during his self-described mid-life crisis. He saw a niche between the serious tomes that marked Russian literature (Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, etc.) and the mass market pulp fiction that dominated the low end of the post-Communist literary market. His book sales both in Russia and in Europe and the United States have proved him correct.
Turkish Gambit takes place in 1877. Russia is at war with Turkey after Russia and Serbia came to the aid of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bulgaria in their struggle to free themselves from rule by the Ottoman Empire. The war had important implications for all of Europe. The war was concluded at the Congress of Berlin, a congress that pretty much stripped the Russians of the gains they had made in the war. The Congress of Berlin humiliated the Russians and paved the way for future unrest in the Balkans that eventually led to the First World War. Newspaper reporters and others (including assorted spies) flocked to the battlefront from all over Europe. This is the historical context in which we find Fandorin and the Turkish Gambit's cast of characters.
The story centers on a young lady, Vavara Surovova. Like many children of the Russian aristocracy she considered herself progressive, smoked, enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh, and had a great disdain for Tsarist rule. Nevertheless, she decides to travel from Moscow to meet up with her fiancé, a Russian officer serving in the corps of cryptographers. No sooner does her journey start than she encounters a life threatening situation. It is here that Fandorin makes his initial appearance. Although she has no small amount of disdain for the man who rescued her they make their way to the front, near the town of Plevna where the Russian army is laying siege to a Turkish stronghold. As the story progresses Vavara soon becomes the focal point not only of the romantic advances of the soldiers and reporters encamped near Plevna but also of the spies and counter-spies who are trying desperately to influence the course of the war. The intensity of the story and Akunin's writing builds as the siege reaches its conclusion. As was the case in both Winter Queen and Leviathan nothing is truly as it seems and the layers of mystery created by Akunin are peeled away slowly by Fandorin. Akunin does an excellent job in maintaining the mystery throughout, even for those very familiar with plot devices and red herrings in stories of this sort.
One of the more interesting aspects of this series of books has been the marked change in the style of each book. Winter Queen may be described as an action-adventure yarn with the young, optimistic and idealistic racing from pillar to post, Indiana Jones-style, saving the world, or at least Moscow from some spectacularly murderous evil-doers. In Leviathan, we see a more subdued, thoughtful Fandorin playing the role of Hercule Poirot in an Agatha Christie parlor mystery. Fandorin was not center stage but would appear at critical moments to use deductive reasoning to advance the story and solve the mystery. In Turkish Gambit we see Fandorin in 19th-century spy mode reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent. Fandorin is more involved in the action than in Winter Queen but is placed a bit off-center as Vavara and her mishaps takes center stage.
Turkish Gambit should not disappoint any Akunin fan that has been awaiting the publication of his third story in English. The Turkish Gambit is a highly enjoyable period piece marked by good writing and better than average characterizations. Turkish Gambit is the third Erast Fandorin mystery series translated into English, following the publication here of Winter Queen and Leviathan. However, Turkish Gambit was the second in the series published in Russia. For those new to Akunin's Fandorin mysteries I suggest beginning with Winter Queen, followed by Turkish Gambit and then Leviathan.
So far there has been a total of eleven Fandorin mysteries published in Russia. Akunin has also written another four books in which Fandorin's grandson is a detective in contemporary Moscow. I eagerly await the publications of these volumes. Turkish Gambit was a delight and I do not hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in a good yarn.