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Book Review: The Death Of Achilles by Boris Akunin

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According to myth, Achilles had been dipped in magical waters as a babe rendering him invincible to harm by any weapon wielded by human arm. But when he was submerged in the magic waters, there was one place where the waters failed to cover; the heel that was held by the hand of the one dunking him. Thus the one place that Achilles could be harmed was his heel.

Today when we speak of a person's weakness, or a point at which they are particularly vulnerable, we refer to it as their Achilles' heel, in memory of the myth. But Achilles was one of the greatest of the warriors who fought for Greece in the Trojan War. Flamboyant with his golden armour, he was headstrong and bold in battle and captured the imaginations of his soldiers.

For a soldier to be christened Achilles by public acclaim, in honour of his exploits on the battlefield, implies that he too is dashing and bold. It would have no place on the battlefields of today, where generals serve safely in the rear, spending the lives of their countrymen with minimal risk to themselves. But in 19th-century Russia, when generals led the charge into the teeth of cannon fire, they were still the stuff Romantic heroes were made from and more apt to capture the public's imagination.

In Boris Akunin's fourth book translated into English, recounting the adventures of Erast Fandorin, The Death Of Achilles, six years have passed since our hero was last in Moscow, and by the time of his return from his posting in Japan, the annual clock has struck 1882. Any gains that the Holy Russian Empire made in her wars with the Turks have been rolled back by a Europe unified in its wish to contain her power and sphere of influence. But to the populace of Russia, General Michel Sobolev, the dashing hero of the earlier book The Turkish Gambit is still their Achilles.
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Erast's delight upon finding that his old friend the general is staying in the hotel that he had just checked into is quickly tempered upon his reporting for work in his new capacity of special assistant to the governor-general of Moscow for special cases. His first investigation turns out to be an inquiry into the death of the hero of the Empire.

Although "Achilles" is found in his room, sitting in a chair, having been felled apparently by a heart attack. Erast is quick to realize there is something amiss. First of all the good general had not died in situ, and what they found in his chambers had been carefully staged in the hopes of creating that impression. In spite of the general's staff's attempts to deter Fandorin from investigating further, by one after another challenging him to duels, he perseveres and traces the generals movements of the night in question.

It seems he died in the arms of a "professional woman" and his staff have only tried to preserve his reputation. While that maybe true, in as far as what occurred following the general's demise, Fandorin has doubts about the "naturalness" of the heart attack. Sobolev was known for his devotion to staying fit, even when not on active duty, and had shown no signs of ill health until that moment. There is more to the death of General Sobolev than meets the eye, and Erast's powers of observation are quick to start assembling the clues.

While the nation prepares to bury her hero with full state honours, Fandorin begins his investigation into what he thinks is the murder of his old friend. It quickly becomes apparent that their are layers within layers to this crime. Like the dolls that Russia is famed for, open one and find an identical but smaller version lying within, there are many times he thinks a conclusion is imminent, only to have the husk fall away and find himself no closer to a final solution.

With plots and intrigues that lead our intrepid hero on a chase that leads from the lowest criminal class to the highest echelons of power, The Death Of Achilles is Akunin's most complex novel of the series. He does strike an almost discordant note at about the two-third point in the novel when for what appears to be no apparent reason the narrative switches location and time to a small village in the Caucasus mountains. But it comes clear in the end as it turns out to be the story of Fanorin's adversary in the matter at hand.

Not only is this story within the story an extraordinary character study; how a man who started as a child like anyone else became an amoral murderer, but it allows Akunin the opportunity to reveal the true movers behind the conspiracy against the general, and the truly precarious position Fandorin is in. A government will go to great lengths to dispose of a "nation's hero" when they deem him a threat. Even while they praise him with funeral orations, they are taking steps to ensure his killers are never caught.

Erast had set out in good faith to seek out the murderer of his friend supposing he was doing his nation a great service. In spite of the fact that all the engines of the state are being brought to bear in an effort to prevent him from succeeding, he tracks down and corners his enemy. Little does he realize that his accomplishment could mean the end of his life, and not at the hands of the assassin.

Akunin has written another masterpiece of detection and mystery, and even though the plot this time is by far his most complex, he shows himself as deft as ever in ensuring that it never becomes convoluted or unbelievable. In fact the circumstances of this story ring only too true to the modern reader the least bit familiar with the lengths governments will go to preserve their secrets.

With each instalment of the series the character of Fandorin continues to grow as a person and become increasingly fascinating to observe. Even though Erast occasionally appears next to superhuman with his powers of observation and physical skills, he is very human underneath and bears emotional scars that most of us would find far too overwhelming a burden to bear. In fact his dedication to physical and mental exercise can be seen as a means of sublimating his emotions, making him as fascinating a character study as that other clinical and calculating detective of the 19th century, Sherlock Holmes.

While Conan-Doyle may not have meant for us to ever see beneath the surface of his sleuth, Akunin allows his character moments of introspection so we see him with his guard down, and his armour off. It's those moments, as well as Akunin's ability as a storyteller, that will sustain a reader's interest to the extent that you will be eagerly awaiting the next recounting of the adventures of Erast Fandorin.

Canadians wishing to purchase a copy of the The Death Of Achilles by Boris Akunin can do so by either ordering it directly from Random House Canada or through an on line 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.