Review: The State Counsellor
The State Counsellor (transl. Andrew Bromfield)
Vol. 6 in the Erast Fandorin Mysteries
Akunin has been my literary find of 2020; I'm struggling to pace myself and not simply gobble up everything he's written. The State Counsellor's book 54 of the year, and amongst those, Akunin is my most-read author.
The premise is deceptively simple: imagine a handsome 19th century Russian sleuth tackling Moscow's most devious criminal masterminds. But there's a lot more to it than that - this isn't just some kind of overseas Sherlock/James Bond pastiche ...
Firstly, there's Fandorin himself: he's young, and on the quiet, a bit of a ladies man (but a likeable one), with a Japanese valet and a habit of counting out each explanatory step in his logic on a set of rosary beads.
Then we have the plots themselves - satisfyingly convoluted without being impossible, and Akunin writes memorable villains. As this instalment opens, a political assassination is carried out by someone masquerading as Fandorin himself, leading to his temporary arrest. Our hero takes this affront as a personal challenge, and as the story twists and turns and we follow the hunt for the mysterious revolutionary 'Combat Group', he never loses sight of the need to pay his adversary back - with interest.
International literature is always fun to read, because of the insight into other cultures and ways of life that you get. The best translators, and I think Andrew Bromfield is excellent, keep the flavour not just of the author's voice but of their culture, and these books are satisfyingly 'Russian'. Akunin's style appears light, often moving into the laugh-out-loud absurd, and yet he can and often does make profound social and political points. Here's a sample from this novel - a wise old hand counsels an idealist on the realpolitik of the world:
Young man, where on earth did you get the idea that the state is justice and morality?’ Pozharsky asked, laughing good-naturedly. ‘Fine justice indeed! My ancestors and yours, the bandits, stole all their wealth from their fellow countrymen and passed it on by inheritance to us, so that we could dress elegantly and listen to Schubert. In my own case, admittedly, there was no inheritance, but that’s a specific instance. Have you read Proudhon? Property is theft. And you and I are guards set to protect the stolen booty. So don’t go filling your head with foolish illusions. Better try to understand this, if you really must have a moral justification. Our state is unjust and immoral. But better a state like that than rebellion, bloodshed and chaos. Slowly and unwillingly, society becomes just a little bit more moral, a little bit more decent. It takes centuries. And revolution will throw it back to the times of Ivan the Terrible. There still won’t be any justice, new bandits will simply appear, and again they’ll have everything and the others will have nothing. And what I said about guards is actually too poetic. You and I, Lieutenant, are night-soil men. We clean out the backhouse privies, to prevent the shit sluicing out into the street. And if you don’t wish to get dirty, then take off that smart blue uniform and look for another profession. I’m not threatening you, just giving you some well-meant advice.’
I hesitate to call it a 'flaw', but you need to keep your eyes peeled to avoid confusion due to the various ways characters are referred to. It's nowhere near impossible to keep track of who is who, but a little effort is required.
This is a wonderful series. Of course, it's worth beginning at Episode 1: The Winter Queen, but my most recent read, Episode 5: Special Assignments, featured two very satisfying standalone novellas, and would probably introduce the main characters just as well.
Terry Pratchett, for the satire and social commentary - try the 'City Watch' strand of books
Evelyn Waugh, for the wonderfully absurd tone - try Scoop (1938)