the guardian Fri 31 July 2009
This is Akunin's sixth and I think best thriller featuring his tsarist sleuth Erast Fandorin, a devastatingly attractive combination of Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and James Bond. Against the politically unstable background of 1880s Moscow, rife with revolutionaries plotting the downfall of empire, Fandorin is wrongfully arrested for assassinating General Krapov, the very official he is supposed to be protecting, on his way from St Petersburg to take up his new position as governor of Siberia. Of course he didn't do it - he was either practising kung fu with his Japanese manservant or at the opera with one or other of the princesses he regularly escorts to fashionable functions, or more likely in bed with the latest young lovely to fall for his charms. The real killer, masquerading as Erast Petrovich (you have to remember that most Russians have at least three names), is the sinister and utterly ruthless leader of a terrorist cell dedicated to avenging his family, massacred in an antisemitic pogrom when he was a student. Green, as he is known to his fellow plotters, Bullfinch, Needle and friends with similarly terse pseudonyms, has learned the art of survival in labour camps. He has superhuman strength, can will his body to withstand excruciating torture and monitors his heartbeats even when he is asleep. The plot races hectically from handmade bombs being lobbed into stations to glittering balls hosted by millionaire bankers, via brilliantly planned bank robberies which leave countless bodies dying in the snow and the robbers escaping, rather more romantically than our great train equivalents, on horse-drawn sleighs. Akunin, an academic before he turned to crime, has sold 20 million Fandorin books, and I'm not surprised. They're brilliant.