Murder on the Leviathan

By Boris Akunin

There is something nostalgic about classic whodunit mystery fiction. On a practical level, modern forensic science has made it hard to keep a secret. DNA testing has supplanted M. Poirot’s “little gray cells.” The CSI team and Cold Squad have replaced hardworking gumshoes like Columbo and Rockford on TV. A lot of mystery novels these days could more accurately be described as suspense thrillers. They tend to have higher body counts but they’re less of an intellectual challenge for the reader.

It’s no surprise then that Russian author Boris Akunin (the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili) has chosen to set his popular series of mystery novels in the 19th century. It gives him a bit more room.

Murder on the Leviathan is the second of Akunin’s novels featuring the diplomat-detective Erast Fandorin to be translated into English. The set-up is pure Agatha Christie. Someone has murdered the wealthy antiquarian Lord Littleby (along with nine of his servants) and stolen a curious Indian shawl from his Paris apartment. Police commissioner Gustave Gauche’s only clue is that the murderer is one of ten unticketed passengers taking the gigantic new luxury steamship Leviathan‘s maiden voyage to India.

This being the year 1878, Commissioner Gauche can’t rely on forensic experts. Fingerprinting is just a rumour, while the theories of Cesare Lombroso (identifying criminals as lesser evolved anthropoid types) are all the rage. Luckily for the Commissioner the Leviathan takes on a special passenger when it stops at Port Said. Erast Fandorin, on his way to take up a diplomatic post in Japan, is soon on the case.

Of course each of the suspect passengers has a guilty secret. Nobody is what he seems. Hidden motives abound among the charming cast of characters: the English aristocrat, the professor of antiquities, the fallen woman, the inscrutable Japanese, the pregnant young lady, the dashing first mate. Eeny-meeny-miney-mo . . .

Lovers of the classic whodunit will find it a pleasurable excursion: another trip on the Orient Express or cruise up the Nile. Akunin even shows off with two big revelation scenes, complete with a detective standing in front of the assembled suspects explaining how it all happened and what trail of clues led to the discovery of the guilty party.

The problem with Murder on the Leviathan is that it’s too short. Given the amount of background story, plot twists, and bodies that begin to pile up at a remarkable rate near the end, Akunin doesn’t give himself nearly enough time to drop clues and red herrings. As a result, the identity of the killer is fairly obvious well before the dramatic denouement.

In this case, however, getting there is more than half the fun.

Review first published August 7, 2004.


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