15 JANUARY 2005, Page 34

Sleuthing among the Bashi-Bazouks

Andrew Taylor

THE TURKISH GAMBIT by Boris Akunin, translated by Andrew Bromfield Weidenfeld, £12.99, pp. 230, ISBN 029764551X ✆ £11.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848 According to his British publisher, Boris Akunin’s witty detective novels have sold more than ten million copies in his native Russia alone. His principal hero is the suave and enigmatic Erast Fandorin, a man of surprising talents who cuts an elegant swathe through the reign of Tsar Alexander II. Fandorin’s appearance is youthful, but his hair is grey. Formerly wealthy, he is now compelled to earn an honest crust as a detective and diplomatic trouble-shooter. The Turkish Gambit, the third Fandorin novel to appear in the UK, is set in 1877 during the Russo-Turkish war. The chancelleries of Europe watch anxiously as the combined Russian and Romanian armies advance through the Balkan territories of the ailing Ottoman empire towards the glittering prize of Constantinople.

Enter Vavara Suvorova, a determinedly modern young woman journeying to meet her fiancé, a cryptographer at Russian headquarters. A spot of bother involving a rapacious innkeeper and rampaging BashiBazouks leads to an acquaintance with Fandorin, who alternately infuriates and intrigues her. At headquarters, the Russian advance is unexpectedly bogged down outside Plevna. There are wellfounded suspicions that Turkish espionage is responsible. The cryptographer fiancé is implicated and placed under arrest.

Ordered to investigate the case, Fandorin takes Vavara under his wing, where she rapidly metamorphoses into a cross between Dr Watson and lovelorn Girl Friday. She copes admirably with the vicissitudes of her new job, which include several murders, battles, umpteen attempted seductions, typhus and the consequent loss of her hair, and a final ordeal with the chief villain in a bank’s strongroom.

There’s much to enjoy in Akunin’s thrillers. His novels are historical pastiches of high quality with the additional pleasure of an unfamiliar Russian perspective on world affairs. He takes the conventions, dusts them off and adds a veneer of irony. Fandorin appeals to many readers precisely because he is little more than an exotic variant of Sherlock Holmes: he has the reassuring charm of the familiar. Akunin invites us to join in the joke, and tactfully implies that we have both the intelligence and the knowledge to be able to do so.

That said, The Turkish Gambit is not a good example of his work. The narrative is often swamped by the historical background. The intrigues confuse rather more than they intrigue. The cast list is so large that first you lose track of who’s who and then you stop caring. The denouement has all the excitement of a game of Cluedo with hyperactive children on a wet Sunday afternoon. At the end, Vavara dwindles into the shadows, leaving behind a sense of anticlimax.

Akunin is a hugely entertaining writer, but The Turkish Gambit reads as if much of it were written on automatic pilot. If you haven’t discovered the Fandorin novels before, you would do much better to start with The Winter Queen, a splendidly tongue-in-cheek conspiracy thriller, or Murder on the Leviathan, a mystery on the high seas that invokes the shade of Agatha Christie.