Sometimes when an author writes a series of books featuring the same hero, he or she gets lazy. In quite a few cases the author merely tells the same story over and over again, but changes the scenery in hopes that a different location or an occasional new character will fool us. It may take a couple of stories to catch on, but sooner or later you’ll find yourself being able to predict exactly how the story will unfold.
Mystery stories can be the worst culprits, as it seems once an author has found a formula for success, they’re unwilling to tamper with it. The lead character is worse than the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for their ability to always get their man (or woman, as the case may be) with the only mystery being the reader’s wonder as to why they bothered to read the book in first place when it was identical to the one before and the one before that.
There are exceptions to the rule and there are some authors who are able to make each story featuring their character completely different from the previous one. What I’ve found in those cases is that the writer has the versatility to make each scenario they place their character into unique enough that it allows us to view different facets of his or her personality with each outing.
Such is the case with the stories by Russian author Boris Akunin that feature Erast Fandorin. In each of the four novels that Fandorin has been in to this point, Akunin has yet to allow his adventures to become formulaic. More importantly, in spite of Fandorin’s obvious skills and special talents, he is never anything but human, as he is continually proving himself as fallible as the rest of us.
When last we left Fandorin, he had barely escaped with his life while solving the mystery surrounding the death of an old army comrade. After years of travel abroad, serving as an attaché in the Russian Embassy in Japan, he has once again settled in Moscow where he holds the title of Deputy to the Governor of Moscow for Special Assignments. It is his job to investigate those cases considered either too sensitive for the regular police force to handle or that the Governor decides to take a personal interest in. It’s two cases of this type that Akunin’s latest Fandorin novel is named for.
Special Assignments, published by Random House Canada, contains two full length novellas, each detailing a case of such a delicate nature that only Fandorin can be entrusted with their handling. In the Jack Of Spades he must track down a con-artist who has had the unimaginable gall to not only separate the elite of Moscow from their money, he does it in such a manner as to make them look like fools. Still it’s only when Fandorin’s boss becomes one of his victims that our erstwhile hero is called in to deal with the problem.
In previous books Akunin has used a third party as our eyes onto the investigation, and he employs that technique again here. Anisii Tulipov is a young and timid courier in the police department who can’t believe his luck when Fandorin asks him to assist him in tracking down the elusive miscreant. Although he is in desperate awe of his new boss, it doesn’t stop Tulipov from wondering at his peculiarities, including that he appears to be living with another man’s wife who makes Fandorin’s life a living hell with her petty demands,
There’s also that he and his Japanese man servant spend a good part of each morning beating each other up, either with their hands and feet or long wooden staffs, before getting down to work. Young Tulipov starts his workday sitting in his master’s study poring over the prior day’s papers and police reports looking for any hint that the Jack of Spades is back in business. (So called because the knave will always leave a Jack of Spades at the scene of his hoax in order to let the world know he was responsible.) Nobody knows what the elusive thief looks like as he is a master of disguise; once he was a war veteran confined to a wheelchair, another time an elderly notary, and yet a third time a dashing young nobleman.
Twice they almost have him in their grasp; once when they find him running a fake lottery for charity where the prizes are deeds to properties in other countries, and the second when they set an elaborate trap for him and his accomplice. He is too clever for them, though, and even strikes back by managing to steal all of Fandorin’s temperamental mistress’s possessions, guaranteeing a rather frosty work environment for Tulipov and a living hell for Fandorin.
The Jack of Spades may embarrass people and separate them from their money, but even Fandorin has a sneaking admiration for him and his abilities. The same can’t be said for the creature they find themselves up against in The Decorator. A serial killer is loose on the streets of Moscow seemingly intent on doing the same work there as Jack The Ripper did in London, killing the prostitutes.
Akunin chillingly takes us into the mind of the person responsible, and it’s not a pleasant experience. According to this creature’s way of thinking, removing its victim’s flesh and exposing their internal organs is improving their appearance. Internally we are all pristine, just like our creator made us; it’s only on the outside that we are ever disfigured.
Fandorin knows that only someone with a knowledge of anatomy and experience using a scalpel (in other words someone with a least some medical training) could be responsible for this butchery, yet there are thousands of medical professionals of some sort or another in Moscow alone. They have to figure out a way of eliminating suspects.
Slowly but surely Fandorin and Tulipov start closing the net, but with each step they take toward the fiend, another person dies, and the bodies are no longer those of strangers, but of people they know. While they desperately try to predict where the fiend will strike next, we walk with the killer and are filled with the helplessness that goes with not being able to do anything about preventing a horrible hurt from happening.
The Decorator is not a nice story and there’s none of the lightness of spirit that accompanied the Jack Of Spades. Although both stories feature Erast Fandorin as the central character, they are as different from each other as night and day. Like the full-length novels that have come before these two shorter stories, Akunin has created situations that prevent his character from becoming stale or predictable.
In Special Assignments Akunin once again shows that he is a writer willing to take risks, and not afraid to make his hero look foolish. Well-written and peopled with fully realized characters, Akunin’s stories are the benchmark against which other writers of detective or crime fiction should be set.