Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin

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Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A semi-pastiche murder mystery set mainly in a war zone at the end of the nineteenth century might appeal to you more than it did to me!
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 288 Date: October 2005
Publisher: Phoenix mass market p/bk
ISBN: 0753819996

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I should have had a good look at the back of the book before I bought it, but I'd just discovered Boris Akunin's hero, Erast Fandorin in Murder on the Leviathan and I was keen to read some more. Leviathan was the second book in the series and I was expecting Turkish Gambit, the third, to follow on where Leviathan had left off, but Turkish Gambit actually predates the events in the earlier book.

It's 1877 and the Russo-Turkish War is in full swing. Varvara Suvorova, a very progressive young woman, is on her way to join her fiancé at the Russian headquarters, but on the way she's duped by her guide and loses all her money and belongings. She's rescued from a difficult situation by Erast Fandorin who is also on his way to join the army. It's only a few days before the fiancé is accused of treason and, no matter what the Russian army does, it looks as though the Turks are going to win. It's obvious that there's a Turkish spy within the Russian headquarters and it's up to our hero to unmask the traitor.

Leviathan was set on a cruise ship and was open, rollicking pastiche. I laughed my way through most of it and I confess I was expecting something similar, something I could relate to. Instead I found myself in the world of sieges, cavalry charges, slaughter and mayhem. It's not to my taste but that's my problem rather than the book's. There is some pastiche there, with touches of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and George MacDonald Fraser, but it's not as marked as in Leviathan and by no means as funny. It's certainly witty in places and has a certain charm.

The plot, though, is a good one. There are only a limited number of people who could be the Turkish spy (provided that you're prepared to disregard the massed ranks of cavalry and infantry - you'll need to suspend a little belief on this point) and all the clues are there as to whom it is. I did work it out, but that was really because most of the suspects were not so much eliminated from the enquiry as eradicated. Death treads heavily in this book. If I had to think of a single adjective to describe the book, it's probably "swashbuckling". As the Russian army tries to advance the Turks are there to block them. Thousands of men die at a stroke. Even when they do manage to win some ground it brings them little benefit. Whilst I might not like books about war this one certainly brought out the horrors more than this type of novel generally does.

I'd have liked a map, you know. I couldn't always work out where we were and modern maps are little use as the names have changed so much. I'd guess though that most of the action was located in what is now Rumania and Bulgaria.

The characterisation is very shallow with little to balance it. Far too much of the book revolves around Varvara Suvorova. She's engaging enough but not sufficiently interesting to carry the book. I bought the book because of Erast Fandorin - and the cover does describe it as "The new Erast Fandorin Mystery", so I don't think that's unreasonable - but he plays a relatively small part. He pops up when required and provides the answers, but we don't really see how he goes about getting them. In fact, when he unmasks the traitor he provides some information that wasn't available to the general reader and I always feel that's something of a cheat on the part of the writer. I was disappointed too to be told that he was only twenty one. The age didn't sit right and whilst he's supposed to have had quite a traumatic private life, leading to some grey hairs at an early age, we're not given any details.

As for the other characters there's a solid cast of army officers and war correspondents with little to distinguish one from another and I did sometimes struggle, particularly in the early part of the book. They're caricatures rather than characters, which is fine in open pastiche, but this book rather fell short of that. Akunin is better with male characters then female, so it was rather a pity that so much of the book was dominated by one female.

The translation of the book from the original Russian has been done by Andrew Bromfield, who has also translated other books in the series. I can't compare the text with the original Russian, but I was never consciously aware that I was reading a translation which is the best praise that I can give a novel of this type. His translation is elegant and readable.

If you like novels set around battlefields you may well find the three stars that I've given this book rather ungenerous. It's far from being unreadable and is quite well-plotted. It's just not to my taste.

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