A rare blunder by Erast Fandorin, Imperial Russia’s foremost detective, puts him on the trail of an assassin and revolutionary in the summer of 1914, a trail that leads to Baku, oil-spattered boomtown and possible crucible of a plot against the very order that Fandorin upholds. The city itself is a bubbling pool of money, violence and corruption, and even Fandorin must tread carefully and watch for treachery everywhere. Indeed, he is attacked the moment he steps off the train from Tiflis (present-day Tbilisi) and is lucky to escape with his life. Someone with the access to the innermost communications of the tsarist regime wants him dead.
To make matters more complicated, Fandorin’s wife Eliza — whom he married at the end of All the World’s a Stage — is now one of Russia’s greatest movie starts, and she is filming an extravaganza in Baku. More than a few bandits or political factions would like to make a splash, or at least a huge sum of money, by disrupting filming and kidnapping the famous actress. To make matters even more complicated, three years of matrimony have revealed to Fandorin that the two of them are incompatible, and he wants nothing more from her than an honorable way out. Nevertheless, he must play the role of a devoted husband — and in the Caucasus of 1914 that may also mean the threatening role of a jealous husband.
Just days after Fandorin’s arrival in Baku the telegraph brings news that the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary has been assassinated in Sarajevo. Readers, but not the novel’s characters, know that the clock is ticking down to the outbreak of the First World War, a war that will bring down everything that Fandorin has spent his career propping up.
The mysteries multiply, and plots thicken. Armenians and Azeris carry out vendettas, strikers organize against oppressive oil magnates, entrepreneurs try to protect their millions by buying off bandits and putting spanners in their rivals’ works, the Russian government tries to maintain a semblance of order while remaining resolutely on the take. It’s a potentially head-spinning whirlpool of scum and villainy, but Akunin carries readers along with aplomb. The pace never flags, as Fandorin lurches from breakthrough to setback, losing allies and gaining assistance from unexpected quarters. His prey remains elusive and capable of counterattack, to say nothing of the ordinary hazards of being a visible and wealthy outsider in Baku.
In some scenes, Fandorin is a jerk to Eliza, which is unfortunate. Heroes have to have their flaws, of course, but I was unhappy to see him having such a petty one. I was also uncomfortable at how Akunin renders the speech of Fandorin’s Japanese companion and manservant Masa, with a confusion of r’s and l’s that is more reminiscent of the 1950s than 2012 when Akunin published Black City. On the other hand, Akunin is well versed in Japanese culture and history, so it’s likely that he’s sending up the conventions of period detective novels, which would have leaned heavily on written dialect. (“Akunin” is a Japanese word that roughly translates as “bad guy,” so it occurs to me that Boris Akunin could be rendered as Boris Badenov.) Akunin also plays with expectations about other non-privileged groups — one sub-plot concerns how a woman who owns an oil company takes advantage of how men in the business view her — so he is clearly aware of how he depicts Masa.
Fandorin does not address questions of the tsarist regime directly, but operating at the level he has attained by 1914 he must know that he is upholding personal autocracy. He hopes for a better Russia, he hopes for peace in Europe, but is committed to reform at most. When he was just a provincial investigator, his role in the system was easy for readers to overlook. Now that he is trusted at very high levels, he poses a question for attentive readers: Akunin has portrayed Fandorin as a hero, but is it heroic to hold up the autocrat?
Black City is the twelfth Fandorin book, and not a very good place to start the series. It’s shorter and tauter than its immediate predecessor, a cracking adventure full of surprises and reversals all the way to the end.