Saturday, August 16, 2008

Book Review: Murder on the Leviathan by Boris Akunin

Another good book has been read and savored on my Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge list (9 books by 9 authors from 9 different countries), in which I endeavor to make my bedside book pile more worldly. I read Georgian-born Muscovite author Boris Akunin's "Murder on the Leviathan" (NY: Random House, 2004), a charming murder mystery set on a luxury ocean liner in 1878. While I had picked the book thinking that there was going to be more insight into Russian culture, this instead provided an old-fashioned locked room mystery puzzle peopled with characters straight out of the Clue board game: stuttering Russian diplomat Erast Fandorin; a pompous French policeman, Commissioner Gauche; a half-mad, ginger-haired English aristocrat, Sir Reginald Milford-Stokes; the Italian Ship's Physician, Dr. Truffo; a outwardly calm but inwardly passionate Japanese nobleman, Gintaro Aono; a pregnant Swiss banker's wife, Renate Kleber; and a middle-aged English lady, Clarissa Stamp, who has recently come into a bit of money.

Commissioner Gauche is aboard the Leviathan steamship on its maiden voyage, bound for Calcutta, India, in search of a mass murderer. Back in Paris, an eccentric collector of Indian antiquities, Lord Littleby, was found bludgeoned next to a shattered display case missing a gold statuette of the god Shiva and painted Indian shawl. Downstairs in the kitchen of his mansion, nine of his servants, including two children, are found poisoned and are slumped in their seats at the table. The only clue Gauche finds at the crime scene is a whale-shaped golden key, which turns out to be a ticket for luxury accommodations on the Leviathan.

The writing is well-paced and the characters are interesting and have their inner ruminations fleshed-out in chapters written from each of their perspectives. A great deal of wit shines through. In this passage, written from Commissioner Gauche's perspective, he comments on the undercurrents of a literary conversation among the suspects:
"The commissioner noted that the person who evinced the liveliest reaction was Miss Clarissa Stamp, the old maid, who started babbling about artists, the theater, and literature. Gauche himself was fond of passing his leisure hours in an armchair with a good book, preferring Victor Hugo to all other authors. Hugo was at once so true to life, so high-minded, that he could always bring a tear to the eye. Besides, he was marvelous for dozing off over. But of course Gauche had never even heard of these Russian writers with those hissing sibilants in their names, so he was unable to join in the conversation. Anyway, the old English trout was wasting her time; "M. Fandorine" was far too young for her."
An old English trout! Indeed.

Similarly, in other chapters written by other suspects we get snarky references to the "amoeba-like" Mrs. Truffo, Anglo-French nationalist rivalry, and Aono's seething rages over daily faux pas committed by his red-haired barbarian shipmates and the completely the reverse, European and American astonishment that Aono would be clad in only a loincloth doing martial arts moves and meditating on the upper deck. Overall, a wonderful mystery novel with all of the elements in place for a mental escape to another time and place: interesting characters, humor, an intricate plot and wonderful atmosphere.

Recomended for lovers of classic British-y and literary mysteries, devotees of historical fiction and anyone interested in Indian folklore and legend.

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