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Book Review: Murder On The Leviathan by Boris Akunin, Andrew Bromfield (Translator)

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When we last saw Boris Akunin's erstwhile hero Erast Fandorin, he was disappearing from view out the window of a railway car that was heading back to Mother Russia from the battlefields of the Russo-Turkish wars. A beautiful young woman was surprised to find that her eyes were unable to keep him in focus as they were being clouded by tears. She knew that he and she were to be irrevocably parted, not only because the man she was sharing a carriage with was her husband to be, but also because Erast was off to Japan where he was about to begin his seven year term as an assistant counsel in the Russian embassy.

Young Erast's mood was particularly despondent, because although he had succeeded in catching the spy who was intent on foiling Russia's military victory, and the Empire had vanquished her opponents in the field, the victories were pyrrhic. All of Europe was prepared to stand in opposition to the terms of the peace treaty, and the spy had achieved his real long term goal of creating the opportunity for his chosen man to take the reigns of power in Turkey.

So even while all around him are celebrating the Empire's great victory, Erast sees the truth has no desire to return to Russia. As he prepares himself for the journey that will take him from the battlefields of Eastern Europe to the island Empire of Japan, events in a secluded house in Paris, France are unfolding that will turn his expected relaxing sea voyage into an event every bit as perilous as his stay on the Russian Front.

A ghastly murder/robbery has taken place, where all 11 inhabitants of a household are found murdered and a valuable object d'art has been stolen. Although it is quickly figured out that the ten servants had been poisoned, and their master bludgeoned to death, mystery surrounds the crime. How was the culprit, or culprits, able to subdue all ten servants without a struggle? Why is the only item of value stolen recovered within 24 hours — fished out of the Seine river by a young lad.
Boris Akunin.jpg
The gold statuette of Shiva was valued at easily half a million francs, so to find it discarded, blood spattered and stained, like your typical murder weapon that was grabbed on the spur of the moment by a surprised intruder, is yet another mystery for Commissioner Gustave Gauche of Special Crimes section of the Paris Police. His only clue to the identity of the murderer is the emblem of a golden whale that he finds clutched in the bludgeoned victim's hand — as if in his final struggles he had been able to rip it from his killer's clothing.

It turns out that this trinket had been especially made and minted for handing out to all first class passengers who intended to travel on the maiden voyage of the S. S. Leviathan, departing Southampton in England and bound for Calcutta. What Gauche had hoped would be an easy process of elimination turns out to be a far more difficult matter than first anticipated. Over a hundred first class tickets had been sold, and could have been purchased anywhere between Southampton and Constantinople. Thus we find him at the beginning of Boris Akunin's Murder On The Leviathan standing by the gangplank scrutinizing one Erast Fandorin, first class passenger, as he boards ship at Port Said en route to Tokyo via Calcutta. As his whale is not clearly visible, our Gauche quickly adds him to his collection of ten suspects, and ensures Erast is assigned to the Salon reserved for the detective and his suspects.

If there is not a specific genre of murder/mystery for passengers on a train or cruise ship, there probably should be. Agatha Chrisite used the setting to great success in Murder On The Orient Express (train) and Death On The Nile (steam ship). It immediately creates a wonderful atmosphere of suspense and paranoia with its "one of us is the murderer" scenario, and allows for wonderful displays of character interaction, abundant use of red herrings, and of course the pièce de résistance of "the unveiling of the murderer".

Akunin proves himself an adept of the genre as he pulls out all the stops. From his choice of ten for the number to inhabit the salon, (a nod to Christie's Ten Little Indians no doubt) to the "types" selected. The foreigner, a Japanese man who has been studying in France, the addled British aristocrat, the young pregnant bride travelling to reunite with her husband, the prim, single woman on just this side of spinsterhood, the seemingly respectable ship's doctor and his wife, a professor of Indology (remember the statue of Shiva used as the blunt instrument), the ship's Lieutenant (a bronzed, buffoon in our good Commissioner's estimation and not really a suspect but the captain's representative at the table), Erast Fandorin, and of course the Commissioner himself. All in all as classic an arrangement of people and circumstances if it had been ripped from Dame Agatha's notebook.

Of course Akunin has added his own deft touches. In Christie's novels bigotry and British moral superiority are taken as fact (Ten Little Indians was originally Ten Little Niggers), but on board this ship they are no more tolerated than the plague or any other ugly infestation. It's astounding how quickly the Japanese gentleman goes from being the prime suspect to a respected individual once it is discovered he is a doctor fully versed in Western medicine.

As in The Turkish Gambit the narrative is not from Fandorin's point of view. Throughout the course of the novel we see him through the eyes of his fellow passengers. Whether through diary entries — the British aristocrat and the Japanese gentleman both keep journals — or interactions with him told from another character's perspective, we not only see that our young hero is starting to recover some of his ebullience (though still primarily taciturn), he has lost none of his powers of observation.

But what's even more interesting is what each of the characters reveal about themselves in their written observations or their internal reactions to Erast. The inferences he draws from every new revelation, his disconcerting habit of speaking the truth, or his reaction to their stratagems, elicit responses that are interesting and revealing. "He must be some kind of a pervert," is the young bride's conclusion, when she attempts to seduce him as a test of his character, of course, and he cooly rejects her advances.

Akunin's plot follows as many switch-backs as a steep mountain road. During the course of the Leviathan's cruise through the Suez canal and into the Indian Ocean the picture clarifies, and the object of the original crime is revealed: a literal king's ransom of jewels is at stake. One of their number is a ruthless killer who has already killed 11 people in their quest for what is estimated to be worth 55 million Francs of precious stones 11 what's to prevent him or her from eliminating whomever they feel poses a threat?

When the Indologist succumbs to a slit throat, at the very moment he's about to reveal a clue to the treasure's whereabouts — tensions heighten. Who among them is the next potential victim, or, worse yet, the murderous villain? Murder On The Leviathan proves once again that not only is Akunin a master storyteller, but he is an adroit student of the various genres of crime and detective fiction. Perhaps, best of all, his affection for the material is so obvious that it is impossible not to be caught up in the fun.

Canadian readers wishing to travel the seven seas with Akunin and Erast Fandorin can either order a copy of Murder On The Leviathan directly from Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.