The Winter Queen

Book Cover
A tale of mystery, sleuthing, and intrigue.

With a year in Russia, and no literary education in Russian works, masterpieces, or even poetry, a secondary aim (secondary to exploring and learning in person) is to get acquainted with the rich literature that this vast country has produced.

I thought I’d start easy, with a contemporary: Boris Akunin’s ‘Erast Fandorin’, supposedly the ‘Russian Sherlock Holmes’. This comparison suits the main character (if one follows the version of Sherlock portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch), youthful, energetic, inquisitive– but also completely misses the mark, as he is also emotional, misled by his superiors, naive and often wrong.

The intrigue begins with the apparent suicide of a young man, who bequeaths a large fortune; somehow involved is another wealthy student, a beautiful and exotic lady, and a count with a reputation for misbehaving. Fandorin, an eager young clerk, begins to look into the unusual suicide and quickly finds that the story does not add up. He sets out on an investigation, befriending and integrating himself into different circles, playing with disguises, and using his knowledge of multiple languages to the best of his advantage.

It is a book that full of conspiracy, false leads, and even a romp through Europe, although it is set at the time that the first ‘Bell telephones’ were produced. The storyline is ‘modern’, with one ‘romantic theory’ after another being dismissed by our hero Fandorin, while revealing a far more complex network of interactions underneath.

Not wanting to reveal too much of the plot myself, I’ll stop the description there. The novel, which I read in English, is the first in the series about Erast, and although I believe that many of the other tales can be read out of order, this one is importantly first, as it describes the case that makes his career and (as the final chapter says) makes him grow to a man. It is a face paced, easy read, featuring some of Moscow’s famous monuments in the backdrop, while also giving a wonderfully grimy description of London.

While I will set the series aside for a while in order to read some classics (I’m tired of shocked faces when I reveal I have read no Pushkin, Chechov, Gogol or even Tolstoy), I recommend this easy detective novel as an enjoyable read.

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