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The State Counsellor by Boris Akunin

First published in Russia in 1998; published in translation in Great Britain in 1999; published by Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press on July 4, 2017

The State Counsellor is a man named Erast Petrovich Fandorin. The novel, set in Tsarist Russia, is the sixth in a series by Boris Akunin.

Fandorin has been assigned responsibility for the safety of General Khrapov in Moscow. The revolutionaries blame Khrapov for the brutal flogging and suicide of a young woman before he was made the Governor of Siberia. Khrapov, who claims it wasn’t his fault and doesn’t understand all the fuss about “an ordinary bourgeois girl,” has been hidden away in Siberia for his own protection, but the time has come to return him to Moscow. His return is brief, however, as a revolutionary assassin who goes by the name Green enters the train, posing as Fandorin, and dispatches Khrapov in the opening pages.

The real Fandorin is briefly arrested, but it soon becomes clear that the murderer was in imposter. It then becomes Fandorin’s duty to find the villain who killed the villain. Only a few people in various security roles knew that Fandorin was assigned to protect Khrapov, so Fandorin begins his inquiry by asking whether any of those might have leaked the information.

A seductress named Diana becomes a key character. She adds flavor to the novel by expounding on the weaknesses of men and the various ways in which women can exploit those weaknesses. A seductress named Esfir, clearly sympathetic to the revolution, wastes no time in taking Fandorin to bed. Modern women are a true mystery to poor Fandorin, but they are considered outrageous by high society women (even as they are admired by high society men).

The novel explores the utility of terrorism as an instrument of revolution — in this case, to spark a revolution that will overthrow Tsarist rule. Green is the novel’s philosopher of terror. But the plot explores the corruption of power and the ruthlessness of people who seize it. The mystery involves the identity of the person who is betraying the police by helping Green, and while the truth is telegraphed in a way that makes it easy to guess the betrayer’s identity before it is revealed, I prefer that to mystery stories that plant no clues at all.

Fandorin is an interesting, stuttering detective who is forced to cope with a doomed political structure that hampers his ability to do his job. The story is cerebral, but it has spurts of action that keep it lively. Life in Tsarist Russia is well imagined. I haven’t read other entries in the series but it is easy to enjoy The State Counsellor as a stand-alone mystery novel.


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