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Murder on the Leviathan: A Novel (Erast Fandorin) Paperback – February 8, 2005
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Usually, crime writers who give birth to protagonists deserving of future series want to feature those characters as prominently as possible in subsequent installments. Not so Boris Akunin, who succeeds his celebrated first novel about daring 19th-century Russian sleuth Erast Fandorin, The Winter Queen, with the less inventive Murder on the Leviathan, in which the now former Moscow investigator competes for center 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 travelers 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 harbor 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 artifact 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 humor from their over-mannered behavior and individual eccentricities. 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 --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Akunin writes like a hybrid of Caleb Carr, Agatha Christie and Elizabeth Peters in his second mystery to be published in the U.S., set on the maiden voyage of the British luxury ship Leviathan, en route to India in the spring of 1878. Akunin's young Russian detective/diplomat protagonist, Erast Fandorin, has matured considerably since his debut in last year's highly praised The Winter Queen, set in 1876, and proves a worthy foil to French police commissioner Gustave Gauche, who boards the Leviathan because a clue suggests that one of the passengers murdered a wealthy British aristocrat, seven servants and two children in his Paris home and stole priceless Indian treasures. The intuitive, methodical Fandorin, who joins the ship at Port Said, soon slyly takes over the investigation and comes up with an eclectic group of suspects, all with secrets to hide, whom Gauche assigns to the same dining room. The company recite humorous or instructive stories that slow down the action but eventually relate to the identification of the killer. Gauche offers at least four solutions to the crimes, but in each case Fandorin debates or debunks his reasoning. The atmospheric historical detail gives depth to the twisting plot, while the ruthless yet poignant arch villain makes up for a cast of mostly cardboard characters. Readers disappointed by the lack of background on Fandorin will find plenty in The Winter Queen.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audible Audio Edition edition.
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Although he possessed a large collection of valuable antiquities, only a single statue of Shiva was stolen, along with a silk scarf perhaps used to conceal it. But the statue was fished out of the Seine almost immediately, leaving Gustave Gauche, the Investigator for Especially Important Cases with few clues to follow.
Gauche is well named, and reminded me of Agatha Christie's description of her own character, Hercule Poirot as a "bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep." Having found a whale shaped golden pin in Littleby's clenched fist, presumably ripped from the murderer's clothing, Gauche determined that is was used to identify the first class passengers and officers of the Leviathan's maiden voyage from Southampton to Bombay. Detecting the single passenger or senior officer lacking this golden bauble seemed an easy task to Gauche and so he boarded the ship at Southampton, sure he would have his criminal by the the time the ship reached LeHarve.
And so we begin our cruise on the largest ship of the day, offering first class accommodations so lavish and comfort so great that passengers would have no need to bring their own valets and/or maids. Nor would they be expected to take meals in a large dining hall, but in small salons of about ten people. It was in the Windsor salon that Gauche, with the assistance of the ship's Captain, was able to assemble his most likely suspects.
They included the Englishman, Sir Reginald Midford-Stokes, an erratic baronet, scion of a wealthy family, travelling to some "god forsaken Oceania," Mme. Renate Kleber, a young, pregnant wife of a Swiss banker traveling to join her husband in Calcutta, M. Gintaro Aono, a Japanese nobleman who claimed to be an officer in the Imperial Army of Japan, a Mlle. Clarissa Stamp, a "typical Englishwoman, no longer young, with dull colorless hair and rather sedate manners," a specialist in Indian archeology, Anthony F. Sweetchild and the ship's chief physician, the Italian M. Truffo and his English wife of two weeks. Also at the table was the first officer of the Leviathan, M. Charles Renier.
When the Leviathan reached Port Said, a Russian diplomat, with a shock of white hair and a slight stammer joined the party, eventually informing Gauche in response to his unsubtle questioning about the absence of his whale emblem, "I do not wear it because I do not wish to resemble a janitor with a name tag, not even a golden one."
Soon items turn up missing, and then passengers turn up dead. It is clear that the murderer is among our party in the Windsor salon. But who? And how many will die before the murderer is uncovered?
The story is told in the alternating voices of the passengers, through their diaries, letters and private thoughts as each chapter is written from a different point of view. None of them from the perspective of our intrepid Russian diplomat, Erast Fandorin; we only see him through the lenses of the other travelers. But he is essential to the solution of the mystery.
Clearly written in the style of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, Murder on the Leviathan is a cozy mystery reminiscent of Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express. But it is ingeniously updated, as Akunin exposes the national and racial bigotry of that era and those writers and handily refutes it. It is the kind of book I had to occasionally put down, just to marvel at how well he was handling this genre and how much he was improving it all while poking gentle fun at its conventions.
The characters are beautifully drawn, the plotting is almost perfect and although it seems to slow a little in the middle, the mystery is resolved just when one can no longer stand the suspense. For we all know that there is another shoe to drop somewhere, we just aren't sure whose shoe it will be and how far it will fall.
If you enjoy an intelligently written, complex, cozy mystery, Murder on the Leviathan is one you should not miss. Whether you consider it a parody of the genre or a simple cozy, it is a pleasurable read.
Very highly recommended to anyone who enjoys a good old-fashioned mystery.
Written from the perspectives of the various suspects, Erast more or less takes a "back seat" as the reader is led through the murder mystery on a ship bound for Calcutta out of France. Each character provides their own perspective on the mystery, the suspects, and the clues - a very intriguing and clever device. The cast of characters, as an earlier reviewer pointed out, are straight out of an Agatha Christie novel, but with the unique and humorous twist I have come to expect from Akunin.
As the story plays out, we learn that each suspect has their own story to tell - more than a few of which are red herrings, but all are entertaining. A very clever book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I look forward to more titles from the same author being translated.