Monday, November 20, 2006

Paradise tossed ("Murder on the Leviathan")

There's plenty of good, old-fashioned fun in Boris Akunin's tale of murder off and on the high seas: suspects gathered in one place, funny lines, rivalry between English and French (with a Russian coming out on top), nods to Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Maltese Falcon, and just maybe Maurice Leblanc, and the tale of a French police inspector who just knows that he'll get off the damned boat one of these days.

The Leviathan is a super steamship bound for Calcutta in 1878. Its passengers include a doctor or two, a doctor's wife, and a highly nervous nobleman. A middle-aged English lady suddenly grown rich under suspicious circumstances is part of the group, scandalized by the behavior of a Russian diplomat with a slight stutter. A flighty young woman in a delicate condition has her own reason to be nonplussed by the Russian, and a specialist in Indian archaeology arouses suspicion when he chucks a napkin under a table. One of the group has slaughtered ten people in a Paris townhouse -- maybe.

The characters take turn narrating chapters, and each misinterprets the state of affairs in his or her own way. Each, without knowing it, stumbles upon certain truths well before the detective in charge, Erast Fandorin. And, in a strange way, each is part of his or own Tempest, only these characters lose their illusions and delusions at sea, instead of on a wild island, before heading home, free of "the feverish stupor that had shrouded our minds and souls."

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I think the Fandorin series are great fun,especially the pastiche of other writers.I have read Leviathan and the next book in the series Turkish Gambit which is about the Siege of Plevna in the Russo-Turkish war.
You learn a bit about a fairly obscure, but very important, historical incident as well as enjoying the mystery novel.

November 20, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's a seamless pastiche, too. I could also probably fill a post with funny lines from Murder on the Leviathan that undercut pompous or serious moments.

You called the book a mystery rather than a crime novel -- a good choice. Someone once said (well, lots of people, probably), that a mystery novel begins with a world in peace, plunges it into chaos, then set things right again, whereas a crime novel begins with a world in chaos, then makes things worse.

That letter from Milford-Stokes that ends the novel is a charming and graceful summing up of the pleasures of mystery as opposed to crime.

It doesn't surprise me that Turkish Gambit would contain a history lesson. Akunin makes a few passing remarks about the Ottomans in Murder on the Leviathan. That implies a lesson to come, since all that most people know about the Ottomans, I think, is what they did in 1453, and what they did around World War I.

By the way, my spell-checker suggests Oxonian for Ottoman. I guess those decadedent Turks are coming up in the world.

November 20, 2006  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

The Siege of Plevna 1877 seems to have been one of those lectures at military college missed by First World War commanders.
Apparently the Ottoman Turks had purchased a large number of Winchester 73 lever action repeating rifles, and this allowed them to hold off the Russians for months, and cause huge casualties.
The British in the Zulu war in 1879 thought it was unsporting to use repeating rifles, and used the single shot breech loading Martini-Henry.
This was one of the reasons the Britsh army suffered a heavy defeat at Isandlwana and the subsequent siege at Rorke's Drift, immortalised in the film Zulu.

November 20, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ouch! I wonder if, at a distance of more than a century, Akunin sees some grim humor in that ghastly situation.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home"

November 20, 2006  

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