Murder on the Leviathan Paperback – 18 Mar 2010
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In Boris Akunin's Murder on the Leviathan the former St Petersburg investigator Erast Fandorin (hero of The Winter Queen) competes for centre stage with a swell-headed French police commissioner, a crafty adventuress boasting more than her fair share of aliases, and a luxurious steamship that appears fated for deliberate destruction in the Indian Ocean.
Following the 1878 murders of British aristocrat Lord Littleby and his servants on Paris's fashionable Rue de Grenelle, Gustave Gauche, "Investigator for Especially Important Crimes," boards the double-engined, six-masted Leviathan on its maiden voyage from England to India. He's on the lookout for first-class passengers missing their specially made gold whale badges--one of which Littleby had yanked from his attacker before he died. However, this trap fails: several travellers are badgeless, and still others make equally good candidates for Littleby's slayer, including a demented baronet, a dubious Japanese army officer, a pregnant and loquacious Swiss banker's wife, and a suave Russian diplomat headed for Japan. That last is of course Fandorin, still recovering two years later from the events related in The Winter Queen. Like a lesser Hercule Poirot, "papa" Gauche grills these suspects, all of whom harbour secrets, and occasionally lays blame for Paris's "crime of the century" before one or another of them--only to have the hyper-perceptive Fandorin deflate his arguments. It takes many leagues of ocean, several more deaths, and a superfluity of overlong recollections by the shipmates before a solution to this twisted case emerges from the facts of Littleby's killing and the concurrent theft of a valuable Indian artefact from his mansion.
Like the best Golden Age nautical mysteries, Murder on the Leviathan finds its drama in the escalating tensions between a small circle of too-tight-quartered passengers, and draws its humour from their over-mannered behaviour and individual eccentricities. The trouble is, Akunin (the pseudonym of Russian philologist Grigory Chkhartishvili) doesn't exceed expectations of what can be done within those traditions. --J. Kingston Pierce, Amazon.com
Pastiche of the highest order, absurd and completely gripping at the same time (Sunday Times)
Witty, thrilling and wholly unputdownable (Evening Standard)
Akunin is an outstanding novelist ... gloriously tongue-in-cheek but seriously edge-of-your-seat at the same time (Daily Express)
Clever and fun (The Times)
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Top customer reviews
For me, the book had only one bad point, this being the incredible stupidity of Gauche, which sometimes pulled me out of the story. Overall, however, Murder on the Leviathan comes highly recommended from me. And does Fandorin remind anyone else of Phileas Fogg?
Akunin, paying homage no doubt to Agatha Christie's famous detective stories on trains or ships, invents the most intricate who-done-it story on the sea. His characters, among them the prime suspects, come to life through his narrator's lens that zooms on each in turn. Has Gauche thrown his net too narrowly by inviting his group of potential suspects to dine in the Windsor Salon? We find a motley assembly there: among them a young Swiss soon-to-be mother, an English aristocrat, a middle aged wealthy spinster, a Japanese military man, an Indologist who specializes in Indian artefacts. And finally Erast Fandorin, as Russian diplomat, joins the group. Everybody has some sort of disguise, hiding a part of their history that could bring them closer to the crime scene. Once the guests discover who Gauche is, they all claim to be helpful to "Papa" Gauche by adding their own theories to the discovery of the killer, while he is waiting for the killer to make a mistake...
The allusions to Christie's Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient express are deliberate, I would suggest. However, Akunin is not satisfied with Gauche (just the choice of name should give something away!) as another Hercule Poirot. With Fandorin as the quiet, yet astute, observer and analyst of every detail, he has taken the Miss Marple character as the foundation to create a much more sophisticates sleuth. His most impressive character for me is the Japanese military/doctor, Gintaro Aono. Not only in the way Akunin presents his character's story, but how he exposes Gauche's and the group's prejudices against him, using Fandorin as the conduit. It demonstrates Akunin's sensitivity and understanding of the Japanese culture of the day. Of course, as a Russian, Fandorin has his share of suspicions levelled against him.
The narrative is fast paced, full of twists and turns, some ironic, some farcical, that keep the reader guessing how the murder inquiry will eventually be completed, if it does. Highly enjoyable read. [Friederike Knabe]
The simplicity is deceptive, as Boris Akunin makes clear in this stirring tale of plots, conspiracies, international rivalries and bizarre personalities. Gauche's spirits are raised when a young man boards the ship at Aden. He proves to be a Russian diplomat on his way to Japan to take up a post. The addition of the Russian to a group of English, French and Italian passengers evokes mixed feelings, mostly hostile, to a representative of a nation that has recently engaged in wars unpopular with the rest of Europe. The Russian is Erast Fandorin, formerly of the Moscow Police. Gauche, who's unaware of Fandorin's background is patronising of him in a variety of ways. But Fandorin's talents as a detective prove telling.
Besides the murders, there is the great mystery of the one missing artefact. It's a strangely designed shawl, decorated with arcane geometric symbols. This sort of teasing build-up of tension and mystery among the group of prime suspects, who Gauche has arranged will dine together in the Windsor Salon is reminiscent of many earlier mystery writers, such as Agatha Christie. Make no mistake, however, Akunin is his own man as an author, and his international touches leave Christie and the others in the shade. Akunin's day job is a translator of Japanese, and the character of Aono is supremely drawn. As are the Italian doctor and his wife, the daft British aristocrat and the spinster of sudden wealth. As they all learn of the possible immense wealth the missing shawl represents, the story develops twists and turns few authors can achieve in such a succinct space. If "brevity is the soul of wit", Akunin achieves that masterfully in this work.
Gauche, who keeps an information file of the passengers at his side at all times, enlivens the story with vignettes of each of the suspects. One of the ladies must be the infamous "Marie Sanfon", who has left a trail of deceit, opportunism and confidence tricks across many nations without being made accountable for any of them. All have hidden aspects in their lives, and Gauche, with Fandorin's assistance must tease out what is relevant to the case. Akunin achieves this with masterful skill. There is never a reason to set this book aside until you've turned the last page. If this is your first Akunin, you will not be disappointed. There are hints about Fandorin's past, but you learn little else of him here except to realise he has a penetrating mind and a gift for organising information. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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