Book Review: The Coronation by Boris Akunin
In The Coronation, Boris Akunin’s seventh novel in the Erast Fandorin Mystery series, the Russian detective and his sidekick, Masa, investigate the kidnapping of a Grand Duke Georgii Alexandrovich’s four-year-old child at the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II. Matters are only made worse when the family receives the ransom request—an enormous diamond from a royal scepter.
Imagine, if you will, a novel that is a cross between Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem, but set in a Russian empire at the beginning of its political decline, and you’ll have this dazzling story of detection and manners by one of Russia’s finest crime novelists. Boris Akunin is a master of melding together fact with fiction to create a wholly immersive tale that you’d be hard-pressed to believe isn’t a true narration of historical events. The Coronation is yet another of these superlative creations.
Set in the days leading up to and around the actual coronation of Tsar Nikolai II, the book follows our fictional narrator, the impeccable butler Afanasii Stepanovich Ziukin. As the head servant of the (fictionalized) Grand Duke Georgii Alexandrovich, Afanasii is in charge of setting up their Moscow household as His Highness travels to the Russian capital from their estate in St Petersburg for his nephew’s coronation. Georgii makes the trip with three of his children — his somewhat dissolute eldest son Pavel, his beloved youngest son Mikhail and his lovely only daughter Xenia — and various hangers-on and servants, Afanasii included, while the Grand Duchess stays home to look after their other, measles-stricken children.
Afanasii is both the perfect servant and the perfect snob, knowing exactly what is demanded of him and what is his, and therefore his master’s, due. This preciseness extends to the household he runs, which he describes in a manner both matter-of-fact and rich with detail extraordinary to the average reader:
Owing to the division of the court into two parts, I had to make do with an extremely modest number of servants. I had only been able to bring eight people with me from St Petersburg: His Highness’s valet, Xenia Georgievna’s maid, a junior footman (the aforementioned Lipps) for Pavel Georgievich and Endlung, a pantry man and his assistant, a ‘white chef’, and two coachmen for the English and Russian carriages. The intention was that I would serve tea and coffee myself — that is by way of being a tradition. At the risk of appearing immodest, I can say that in the entire court department there is no one who performs duties of this kind, which require not only great skill, but also talent, better than I do. After all, I did serve for five years as a coffee pourer with Their Majesties the deceased emperor and the present dowager empress.
Afanasii’s well-ordered life is quickly disrupted when Moscow proves to be far beneath his expectations. And then disaster: a walk in the park turns into an attempted kidnapping of Xenia which is quickly foiled by two strangers who turn out to be, as loyal readers of the series will anticipate, Erast Petrovich Fandorin and his Japanese manservant Masa. In all the commotion, it takes a while to realize that Mikhail has gone missing, but soon Fandorin is on the case, head to head against a criminal mastermind who has crossed figurative swords with our hero time and time again.
Boris Akunin’s dedication to trying his hand at a different style with each book of his Fandorin series has brought us this excellent novel that, while categorized as a high society mystery, feels more to me like a tale of nemeses. Set five years after the events of the sixth book, (the also excellent) The State Counsellor, The Coronation describes the climax of events as Fandorin finally tracks down a Moriarty-like figure he first encountered in the interim. As described by an increasingly bedeviled Afanasii, the efforts to recover Mikhail and bring his kidnapper to justice make for fascinating, whip-smart reading, as Afanasii must navigate all sorts of situations in his efforts to assist the private investigator.
Perhaps most fascinating of all is the way Mr. Akunin incorporates real events into the narrative, here discussing the Khodynsk Field incident that cast a pall over the coronation proper. Afanasii, finding himself in yet another situation he would never have imagined mere days prior, is in a dress shop when he overhears a gossipy conversation between two women. Apparently, Their Imperial Majesties had been persuaded by their advisors to attend a ball the very night after hundreds of their subjects were killed because, as one woman says:
[“]Count Montebello had ordered a hundred thousand roses to be brought from France especially for the ball. If the ball had been postponed, the roses would have withered. And so Their Majesties came to the rout but as a token of mourning they did not dance. And now there are rumors among the common folk that the tsar and his German woman danced with delight at knowing they had killed so many Orthodox souls. It’s terrible, simply terrible!”
Oh Lord, I thought, what inexcusable frivolity! To set the whole of Russia against oneself for the sake of some roses! The Khodynsk Field tragedy could still have been explained by some unfortunate confluence of circumstances; an exemplary trial of the organizers of the revels could have been arranged — anything at all, as long as the authority of the supreme ruler was maintained. But now universal hatred would be directed not only against the governor general of Moscow, but also against the tsar and tsarina, and everybody would say roses are more important to them than people.
The Coronation is a complex, well-written historical mystery, told in the idiosyncratic voice of a man who finds himself constantly out of his depth as dramatic, and too often tragic, events unfold. It can be hard to remember that Fandorin is supposed to be the hero of the piece given how oddly endearing the aloof Afanasii can be. I’m hoping we haven’t seen the last of Afanasii even as I look forward to reading more Fandorin, as translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, in this mystery series that defies expectations even as it thrills with its intelligence and surprises.