The setting for Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novels is a transitional world, that of Russia in the late nineteenth century, some two decades before the Russian Revolution. Akunin’s readers also are in transition, moving away from the Soviet era. For years, the Soviet government discouraged people from reading detective fiction, a genre it considered decadent. Even after the end of the communist regime, many citizens, including Akunin’s wife, were still influenced by the Soviet assessment. Akunin set for himself the goal of introducing middle-class readers to a new type of story midway between the great literature of Tolstoy and Dostoevski and the pulp fiction that many Russians read in secret. Russians can now read to be entertained rather than fed the party line, and perhaps more important, Akunin’s readers can find a link to the national past that the Soviets maligned.

Akunin wanted the Fandorin series to portray a wide range of character types and historical settings. The cast of characters includes actual historical figures as well as fictional creations closely modeled on real-life people. Fandorin’s physical description is reportedly based on a portrait of a relative of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s patroness that Akunin purchased cheaply in a Moscow flea market. The settings for the novels include the Russo-Turkish War, the coronation of Czar Nicholas II, and Paris in the 1870’s. However, these stories cannot claim total historical accuracy, for Akunin makes his readers feel at home by filling gaps in historical knowledge with his imagination. Above all, inspired by the great authors of the nineteenth century, these stories capture the ambiance of those magnificent and strange times.

Akunin seeks to orient his readers in a culture dating before the Soviet era; however, the settings are also a commentary on twenty-first century Russia. For example, in Smert’ Akhilesa (2000; The Death of Achilles, 2006), he describes the graft and bribery that surround the building of the cathedral of Christ the Savior in the nineteenth century. According to Akunin, the same type of graft and bribery are occurring as that cathedral is being restored in the twenty-first century. Perhaps Akunin intends to erect one of his moral guideposts here, to indicate the possibility of something better than these practices.

Akunin envisioned the Fandorin series as covering all varieties of mystery fiction; each novel was to exemplify a particular subgenre. Each novel has a subtitle indicating which subgenre it...

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