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The Death of Achilles: A Novel (Erast Fandorin Mystery) by Boris Akunin; translated by Andrew Bromfield. Random House, 2006; $12.95; 320 pages.

FROM THE JACKET:

In 1882, after six years of adventures abroad, the renowned diplomat and detective Erast Fandorin returns to his beloved Moscow -- but his homecoming is anything but peaceful. In the hotel where Fandorin is staying, his old war-hero friend General Michel Sobolev (a.k.a. "Achilles") has been found dead in his armchair, felled by an apparent heart attack. Fandorin suspects foul play, and his instincts lead him to the boudoir of a beautiful German chanteuse in whose bed Achilles actually may have breathed his last.A mystery caper filled with invention, treachery, exotic locations, and unforgettable characters, The Death of Achilles scintillates.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

"A criminally talented writer." -- Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung

"A Slavic Sherlock Holmes who speaks Japanese and English, is skilled in martial arts, and has lady-killer good looks." -- The Wall Street Journal

"[One of] the most successful recent mystery series to have been imported to the United States from faraway lands." -- The New York Times

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, who was born in the republic of Georgia in 1956. A philologist, critic, essayist, and translator of Japanese, Akunin published his first detective stories in 1998 and has already become one of the most widely read authors in Russia. He has written 11 Erast Fandorin novels to date, and is the author of two other series as well. He lives in Moscow. The four in the Fandorin series that have been translated and published in English are: The Winter Queen, Murder on the Leviathan, The Turkish Gambit, and most recently, The Death of Achilles.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:

Boris Akunin is in New York, attending PEN international literature festivities, appearing on panels, on the radio, and launching his fourth historical mystery set in 19th-century Imperial Russia and starring his dashing sleuth, Erast Fandorin. He is touted as being a Russian Sherlock Holmes because of his deductive talents, but he is much more physical, a genteel martial-artist Green Hornet-type who takes ice baths and stands on his head to meditate, and is served by a Japanese samurai sidekick whose life he saved, thereby obliging the man to follow him faithfully, forever. We rendezvous in the lavish PEN penthouse of the Roger Smith Hotel, 16 stories above Lexington Avenue, and settle into a huge sitting room. It is somewhat dark, the shades mostly drawn. After many days of meeting and greeting Americans and fellow international authors, Boris Akunin is all business, and we get right to it.

"I know Akunin is a pen name," I say, "but are the rumors true that you were almost Molotov? As in the gasoline firebomb? Or is this apocryphal, this story?"

Akunin ponders. When he speaks, his voice is clear and small -- a few decibels.

"In the beginning I was thinking of maybe taking the pseudonym Molotov, because of the Molotov cocktail [an improvised incendiary device used by Russian soldiers during WWII] and because of my books being sort of a combustible cocktail of highbrow and lowbrow literatures. But Molotov was a historical figure who invokes so little sympathy, Akunin was much better."

"Your books have been described as voznya , a 'romp.'" British reviews invoke their wonderful expression "barking," as in mad. The London Times has lauded his "charm, elegant writing, abundant wit."

"'Playing around.' Ya."

"Your hero, Fandorin, spent six years in Japan and speaks Japanese. His assistant is a yakuza -- a fallen samurai. You yourself studied Japanese and worked as a translator for many years, translating Japanese literature into Russian. But what I was curious about was, what was it like going from the Soviet Union to Japan?"

Mr. Akunin hums. "It was almost a miracle, because it was very hard to get out of the country. I was lucky. The Moscow University, where I was studying, had an exchange program with a Japanese university, which was a very rare thing for the '70s."

"What years did you go?"

"I went to a private university in a suburb of Tokyo. It was in 1977-1978. Of course, it was very important to me. Japan wasn't the West, but for me at the time it was a Western country. It was a big shock. When you grew up in a country like [the] Soviet Union, you were brought up to believe that you'd been very lucky. That it was the safest and the happiest place in the world. I remember when I was a teen, there were posters everywhere [with] skyscrapers of New York in the background, a big heap of rubbish and a small black child sitting there, trying to find something to eat. And on the other side of the poster [was] a Young Pioneer [a member of the communist youth organization], with rosy cheeks, very happy, surrounded by blossoming Moscow. The inscription beneath it said, 'Two worlds. Two childhoods.' ' Da mira ya vetz ya .' Afterwards, when the Jewish emigration started from the Soviet Union, there was a joke that said, 'Dra mira. Dra Shapira.' 'Two worlds. Two Shapiros.' So one stayed in Moscow, the other was going to New York."

I laugh and say, "Were you tempted to stay in Japan?"

Silence. I worry I'm being too candid. "Did the culture draw you?"

Mr. Akunin laughs and very quietly responds: "Well...it wouldn't have been fair to my colleagues, to my comrades, because had I defected the exchange program would have stopped, and all the students in the later years would have suffered."

"They would have rolled up the program?"

He nods.

"In the Soviet Union were mysteries outlawed? Not encouraged?"

"Not outlawed," he says. "Conan Doyle was translated, of course, but the genre of the detective novel was practically nonexistent."

"In Japan," I explain, "during the Second World War, the government actually banned mysteries as unpatriotic. But after the Armistice, when the writers took to paper again, they leapt toward social realism and away from the very saccharine fiction that was promoted during the war for morale reasons. You didn't go in that direction. You went more toward fantasy. I was wondering what drew you there, in that direction, as opposed to, say, [toward the realism of] Le Carré [author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, a Cold War classic]."

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