Book Review: The State Counsellor by Boris Akunin
The State Counsellor by Boris Akunin is the sixth Erast Fandorin historical mystery—the first new Fandorin novel available to an American audience in a decade—which tests the handsome diplomat/detective’s guile and integrity like no mystery before.
This riveting, deeply intelligent and empathetic mystery novel—though set in the Tsarist Russia of the late 1800s—offers significant insight into the current politics of terrorism. Dressed up as a period piece, and quite charmingly so, Boris Akunin’s The State Counsellor examines not only terrorism and the efficacy of police actions in response but also considers the quandary of the moral person caught between two extremes.
Our hero, Erast Fandorin, is one such person. Essentially a private investigator who, at this point in his career, has been appointed State Counsellor to and by Prince Dolgorukoi, the aging Governor General of Moscow, he is expecting to be named head police-master of the city once the bureaucrats in St. Petersburg finish with their political games. (So, no time soon.)
But then, a terrorist impersonating Fandorin assassinates General Kharpov, a disgraced politician traveling incognito on a train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. While Fandorin is quickly cleared by witnesses, he can’t help but take the affront personally and asks leave of Prince Dolgorukoi to investigate.
Given the distance the train has traveled and the nature of the surrounding area, Fandorin is sure that the assassin must be hiding with compatriots in Moscow. Of even graver concern is the fact that the assassin used confidential information to gain access to General Kharpov’s train car. Determined to find out whether General Kharpov’s travel plans were betrayed willingly or unwittingly, Fandorin navigates the labyrinthine world of Moscow’s rival police departments and their informants in order to track down not only a traitor but also a group of terrorists determined to start a revolution. Led by the man codenamed Green, the Combat Group sees violence as the only way to solve society’s ills:
If society was not to become overgrown with scum like a stagnant pond, it needed the periodical shaking-up known as revolution. The advanced nations were those that had passed through this painful but necessary process—and the earlier the better. A class that had been on top for too long became necrotic, like callused skin, the pores of the country became blocked and, as society gradually smothered, life lost its meaning and rule became arbitrary. The state fell into dilapidation, like a house that has not been repaired for a long time, and once the process of disintegration had gone too far, there was no longer any point in propping and patching up the rotten structure. It had to be burned down, and a sturdy new house with bright windows built on the site of the fire.
But conflagrations did not simply happen of their own accord. There had to be people willing to take on the role of the match that would be consumed in starting the great fire.
While Boris Akunin explores the many reasons that push people into terrorist acts—some far more understandable than others—he also considers other points of view when it comes to societal reform, from the well-meaning and progressive to the reactionary and hidebound. Despite being framed in the structures and policies of 19th-century Russia (and oh, the attention to period detail is exquisite!), these arguments still carry a lot of weight in today’s political climate. Perhaps everything old is new again, but it’s hard not to draw parallels from conversations like these between a still idealistic revolutionary-turned-police officer and a more cynical political superior:
“We need to explain to the richest and most intelligent where their own best interest lies and then act from above: pass a law establishing firm terms for the employment of workers. If you can’t observe the law—close down your factory. I assure you that if matters went that way, the Tsar would have no more devoted servants than the workers. It would reinvigorate the entire monarchy!”
Pozharsky screwed up his black eyes. “Rational. But hard to achieve. His Majesty has firm ideas concerning the good of the Empire and the social order. The sovereign believes that a tsar is a father to his subjects, a general is a father to his soldiers and an employer is a father to his workers. It is not permissible to interfere in the relationship between a father and his sons.”
In parallel narratives following both Fandorin and Green, we race with the former to uncover a traitor even as we watch in fascinated horror as the latter uses information provided by said traitor to murder and maim. Make no mistake, while Mr. Akunin is deeply sympathetic to people pushed to the ends of their tethers by unjust systems and societies, he has no patience for those who forget that the lives of others also have value. And he saves the bulk of his criticism for those who would exploit death for personal gain, whether these be terrorists or the people set to catch them.
The State Counsellor is a stunning historical mystery that, by offering a window into a bygone era, uses the past to illuminate the present. The sixth in the series—translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield—it is the author’s highly successful attempt at writing a Fandorin political mystery (each book to date has been an attempt at a different style of mystery writing, an ambitious enterprise not for the faint of heart). The supremely satisfying ending not only wraps up the novel but also opens the horizons for our hero. I, for one, am eager to see what he does next.