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Boris Akunin

By Rohan Kamicheril

I was delighted to see that Josh Spero at the Guardian's Book Blog has written about the Russian writer Boris Akunin in a recent post. Akunin is a figure familiar to many English-language readers, with four of his books already out in English translation.

Akunin's Erast Fandorin series, which features a 19th-century detective of the same name, evokes for many the archetypal Russian detektiv. The detektiv is that hardboiled classic so familiar to students of Russian in the U.S. In the ubiquitous Russian language videos shown in American classrooms, the detektiv is the reading of choice for post-Soviet neighbours and grandmothers alike.

Akunin's crime fiction is also happily on theme for our current discussion of Georges Simenon's The Engagement and novels that subvert the particular, sometimes mannered dictates of the crime genre. Akunin isn't nearly as prolific as Simenon was, though he too seems to turn out new work at a brisk pace. I'd be interested to know if people thought he was your run-of-the-mill Russian crime writer, or whether he has, as he claims, reinvented the form, and created the new Russian detektiv.

I couldn't recommend Akunin for the inventiveness of his prose or for any other superliterary merit, but there's something solid about the pattern that he employs that I find satisfying at least in theory. A friend (and casual reader of Akunin) once mentioned to me that she owed her near encyclopaedic knowledge of Regency England to Georgette Heyer, and though she may have added more details over the years, she could still rely on it for basic--and accurate--facts. I get something of the same feeling for Akunin, who, though he may be eclipsed by other literary stars in Russia today, still manages a firm grasp on the popular Russian imagination and manages to slip in some pretty solid history lessons on life in 19th-Century Russia while he's at it.

Though I'm not qualified to say whether Akunin's work routinely flouts and then reestablishes the rules of the crime-writing game, I would go so far as to say he seems to be doing yeoman's work in diversifying the tenets of the new form. Whether this quest to muddy the waters must ultimately end in supernatural romances and vampire crime fiction is uncertain, but in the meantime, I'm grateful for someone who'll give us our 19th-Century crime fiction fix, with equal parts of literary allusion, history and swashbucklery mixed in.

For the Russian readers among you, Akunin's website provides access to the author's complete works.

Published Sep 11, 2007   Copyright 2007 Rohan Kamicheril

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