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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, November 21, 2004

Russian Literature, New and Old, Continues to Enthrall

Russian writer Boris Akunin published his first mystery featuring young Russian policeman Erast Fandorin in 1998 and has already followed it up with 10 additional Fandorin novels that have sold more than 8 million copies in Russia. The books have been translated into nearly two dozen languages.

Critics have compared Akunin to Aleksandr Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, Caleb Carr and Alexander McCall Smith, the best-selling author of The Kalahari Typing School for Men. The reason he is so difficult to categorize is that his writing combines different styles and it is something new.Under the Soviet Union's communist regime, there were no crime novels because there was not supposed to be any crime. Russians were content to read their great writers, of whom they are rightfully proud.

Now there is officially crime in Russia, and Russians have joined the West in their addiction to crime novels. Akunin, a pen name meaning "bad guy" in Japanese, is the first Russian intellectual to try his hand at crafting mysteries that the literary Russian can read without feeling too much guilt.

Akunin has said he took up crime writing as a substitute for playing computer games. He claims that mysteries and games utilize about the same amount of brain power. Yet he also admits that his 19th-century detective, Erast Fandorin, is a combination of characters from Tolstoy, Feodor Dostoyevsky and Mikhail Lermontov, the author of the Romantic classic A Hero of Our Time.

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin (Random House, 2003).

We are first introduced to the 20-year old Erast Fandorin in this tale of international intrigue. All the elements that make Akunin so much fun to read are present in this book, which he says took him six weeks to write. There are wit, unexpected plot twists, and abundant suspense. His 19th-century Russian setting is more fantastic than real.

Fandorin, the orphan who had to cut his university education short when his once-prosperous father died in disgrace, proves himself to be an intuitive detective, at once brave, reckless and possessed of an eye for female beauty.

Fandorin is fluent in Russian, French and English, so he is free to leave his native Moscow for France or England. The Winter Queen is the name of a hotel in London, where Fandorin uncovers an international conspiracy to overthrow the Russian monarchy.

The Complete Short Novels by Anton Chekhov (Everyman's Library, 2004).

I highly recommend these short novels by Chekhov and newly translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volo-khonsky, especially the perfectly constructed The Duel.

Set in Chekhov's native southern Russia, it is the story of a selfish man whose whole life is based on lies and how he changes after a nearly fatal duel. Besides the forlorn hero, the cast of characters includes a good-hearted doctor, a morally compromised woman, a scientist, and a cleric who finds the goings-on of his worldly friends extremely funny.

Chekhov: The Hidden Ground by Philip Callow (Ivan Dee, 2001).

Chekhov reminds me of the English poet John Keats. Both writers came from poor backgrounds, both trained as physicians, both nursed a dying younger brother, and both died of consumption or tuberculosis.

Chekhov and Keats were brave and noble men as well, the morally upright and responsible heads of their families, who worked hard, although they spurned the consolations of established religion. Callow's biography reads like a novel and will lead you to pick up the Russian master's stories and plays.

The Enchanted Wanderer: Selected Tales by Nikolai Leskov (Modern Library, 2003).

The Russian writer Leskov has been called the literary father of Chekhov. Both were gifted storytellers whose works combine irony with spirituality. Chekhov was not political but expressed sympathy for Russia's oppressed lower classes. Leskov alienated the radical critics of his time with his conservatism and orthodox religious beliefs.

Yet, in Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and in the title story, Leskov has created two of literature's immortal characters.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.