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This review is from: The Death of Achilles (Hardcover)
My mother never cooked beef stew the same way twice even though she made it every Friday night for years. It tasted different every time despite the fact that the basic ingredients remained the same. However, she managed to vary the ingredients and their mixture enough so that each Friday it tasted like a new dish. As a result I never grew tired of it.
The same is true of Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin mysteries. Each one contains the same basic ingredients: the brilliant, handsome yet emotionally scarred Russian detective Erast Fandorin; charming yet dangerous women; a murder or series of murders which typically have or could have a political impact on mother Russia in the last quarter of the 19th-century; and a villain or villains who test Fandorin's physical and mental skills. Yet, in each one Akunin manages to mix and match the ingredients enough to make each one in the series seem fresh. The fourth in the series, "Death of Achilles", is as fresh as the first (the wonderful "Winter Queen) and was great fun to read.
The plot is relatively straightforward. Fandorin has returned from Japan to Moscow in order to assume the position of Deputy for Special Assignments to Prince Vladimir Dolgoruski, the Governor of Moscow. At his very first meeting with the Prince Fandorin is saddened and astonished to hear that that his friend and mentor General Sobolev, known to his millions of admirers throughout Russia as Achilles, has been found dead in his room. Fandorin is told that Sobolev has died of a heart attack while sleeping alone in his hotel room. Fandorin quickly determines that not only did Sobolev not die in his room but that he died in the midst of a passionate embrace with a well-known German woman of easy virtue. Fandorin next determines that Sobolev's death was not a heart attack but by poisoning and sets out to unravel the crime and reveal the killers.
Fandorin is faced with no easy task. Prince Dolgoruski and the Russian ruling elite (the Royal family) want the matter disposed of quickly with no hint of foul play. Sobolev's comrades at arms have reasons aplenty (some of them quite politically charged) to keep the nature of Sobolev's lurid end from coming to light. Further, Moscow's violent criminal underworld has been tasked with using any means necessary to stop the investigation in its tracks. In other words, for Fandorin an untimely death lurks around every corner.
Although the odds are stacked against him Fandorin can rely on the martial arts skills he acquired while in Japan. He also has some added protection from Masahiro Shibata, a member of the Japanese warrior class who owes his life to Fandorin. This particular aspect of the plot is perhaps the weakest element of Death of Achilles. It does stretch the imagination a bit to believe that a Russian detective has returned from Japan with martial arts expertise and a warrior bodyguard. It is not quite so far fetched as it may sound based on Fandorin's experience with Japan in earlier volumes in the series but it does require more than the normal suspension of disbelief used in most detective novels.
If Fandorin's martial arts skills are the plot's weakest element, they are more than made up for by the starring role accorded to Fandorin's nemesis, Achimas. Achimas is a brutally efficient and intelligent killing machine. He has a mind like a chess master and is Fandorin's equal both in physical and mental skills. As such he is the perfect foil for Fandorin and Akunin does a masterful job of bringing Achimas to life. Akunin provides us with a sharply drawn portrait of Achimas' life. It makes for compelling reading and vests the villain with more subtlety and nuance than is usually the case in such stories.
The Death of Achilles will not disappoint fans of the Erast Fandorin mysteries. It should also be enjoyed by people who are new to Akunin's work. It stands up well on its own and can be enjoyed by people who have not read the earlier book. Having said that, I think the reading experience would be enhanced by reading Akunin's earlier three books in the series. First, they are each excellent in their own right. Second, they provide the reader with background information on Fandorin that does make some of his actions here a bit easier to grasp. In many ways this series is similar to Martin Cruz Smith's series of books involving another Russian detective (about 100 years later) Arkady Renko. Each volume is good by itself but the sum is far greater than its individual parts.