On 15th March 1878 Lord Littleby, an English eccentric and collector, is found murdered in his Paris house together with nine members of his staff. A gold whale in the victim's hand leads Erast Fandorin to board the Leviathan, the world's largest steamship, as the murderer is one of its 142 passengers.
This is a lightweight series that I hope Akunin is having as much fun writing as he appears to be doing. This installment, according to the cover blurbs, is a takeoff on Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Not having read either one, I wouldn’t know, but again, it’s very different in style from the first two. Told from the points of view of different passengers of the mammoth luxury liner Leviathan, on her maiden cruise in 1878, the plot involves a horrendous murder of 12 people in Paris before the sailing and the puzzling theft of Indian artifacts from the collection of an eccentric (is there any ohter kind) English lord. 10 people, including a gruff old Inspector of Police from Paris and Fandorin himself, are in more or less enforced company as members of a particular dining group. One of them is the murderer.
What is so wonderful about the story is that each of the passengers is a stock figure out of 19th century fiction of this type--an insane member of the English nobility (Akunin seems to really get off on portraying The English aristocracy in this fashion), a Japanese samurai, an English spinster, a young pregnant Swiss, the Inspector whose name is Gauche (can you believe it?), and others. Akunin does a brilliant job of both spoof and characterization, and handles the multiple points of view masterfully. Faithfully keeping to the Christie style (as I understand it), no one is who he or she seems to be, and the plot twists and turns according to revelations about each of the passengers. Fandorin is a great Holmes takeoff.
More than anything else, I was reminded of The Pink Panther and the bumbling inspector whose name I can not now remember. It’s that order of comedy/crime. And it’s that much fun.
“He is not entirely without vanity, thought Clarissa, but to her eyes this characteristic appeared quite charming and only seemed to make the young man even more attractive. As usual, it was poetry that provided the resolution of the paradox:
For even the beloved’s limitation
Is worthy, in love’s eyes, of adoration.”
On men, this as Renate Kleber tries unsuccessfully to attract and snare our hero Fandorin three ways:
“In fact, of course, men were actually more like members of the canine family. Everybody knew they were primitive creatures who could be divided into three main types: jackals, sheepdogs, and gay dogs. There was a different approach for each type.
The jackal fed on carrion – that is, he preferred easy prey. Men of that kind went for the readily available. ….
[The sheepdog] loved weak, helpless women. All they really wanted was to be allowed to rescue and protect you. A fine subspecies, very useful to have around. The main thing here was not to overdo the physical weakness – men were afraid of sick women. …
[The gay dog] was the least complicated, and entirely devoid of imagination. Only a coarsely sensual stimulus, such as a chance glimpse of an ankle, had any effect on them. On the other hand, many great men and even cultural luminaries belonged to precisely this category, so it was certainly worth a try.
Fandorin stepped inside and froze in the doorway. Without turning round, Renate wiggled her rear at him and displayed her naked back to its best advantage. The wise beauties of the eighteenth century had discovered that it was not a dress open down to the navel that produced the strongest effect on men, but an open neck and a bare back. Obviously the sight of a defenseless spine roused the predatory instinct in the human male.”
“Wasn’t it John Donne who said the secret of female happiness was knowing when to make the transition from one age to the next, and there were three ages of woman: daughter, wife, and mother?”
Following on from the shocking epilogue in 'The Winter Queen', the Russian detective is much changed, from the grey in his hair to the stammer in his speech. Suspicion falls on him as he is corralled into a murder investigation that has taken to the seas. French inspector Gauche (wonderful names abound) has narrowed down his list of suspects to a group of passengers travelling aboard the maiden voyage of the proto-Titantic liner 'Leviathan' to India, and means to find out exactly who killed a rich Englishman and his staff in Paris. The mystery was thoroughly twisted and almost impossible, though the real joy of these stories is not solving the puzzle, but watching Fandorin at work (the true mark of a good detective series). The cast of suspects includes a French femme fatale, a Japanese doctor, an English old maid (who throws herself at Fandorin!), and a batty baronet. All were sketched well, but none really came to life - including Fandorin, who is viewed by the other characters throughout.
The comedy and skill of the writing more than sustained this short mystery, however - the era evinced is more roaring twenties than late nineteenth century, but bar a couple of anachronisms ('claustrophobia' and 'psychopath'), the dialogue worked with the historical setting of the series. (And Fandorin precedes the baronet's name with his title when introducing him, when he should have used 'Sir', but that could be in the translation or just a nitpick!)
A fun read, and I can't wait to read more of the series!
People die right and left as the sleuth, ineptly assisted by seemingly every passenger assigned to eat in his dining room, closes in on the inevitable identification of the killer/fortune hunter. Much entertaining diversion available, though the novice to the series can pick this volume up and start right here with no fear of missing a step. Akunin is a master of the enriching aside, the grace note that adds a little something to the series' fans' pleasure, but isn't required for the newcomer to understand to get the full impact of the story or the characters.
This novel has everything that should have made it a page turner, but never was, at least for me. Curiously, I struggled to complete the book forcing myself to pick it up and read, never a good sign. The plot moved slowly and the twists and turns were not as interesting as required to keep me turning the pages. The main character, Fandorin, was not greatly interesting and I struggled to figure him out. On one page, more than two thirds through the book, Fandorin reveals some mystery about his past which intrigued me, heightening my interest for several pages, but this soon fizzled out. True, this book is part of a series and I have not read the earlier installment, The Winter Queen, which may have improved my interest in Fandorin. The author casts two men in the role of sleuth, one who is always following the most obvious, but incorrect path to the guilty party, while Fandorin saves the day and puts all to rights.
This novel was not badly written or developed, but did not capture my attention as I hoped it would. Murder on the Leviathan was translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield. I have rated it 2 ½ stars in my rating system in which 2 stars is “not my cup of tea” and 3 stars is “enjoyable”.
I've seen this work compared to that of Agatha Christie's and Erast Fandorin compared to Sherlock Holmes. hmmm. The book is a great deal of fun to read; the narrative style is not off-putting but actually enhances the experience.
I very much recommend it if you liked The Winter Queen (as I did); but my guess is you probably need to read the series in order unlike I did.