by C J Verburg
The Winter Queen is is the first of Akunin’s books featuring Erast Fandorin, a minor government functionary who starts out young and hapless, yet is sharp and dogged enough to find himself steering events he’s assigned to help decipher. Evidently each book in the series represents a different subgenre; this “conspiracy mystery” opens in Moscow, 1876. I was intrigued to step into such an authentically unfamiliar frame of reference: time, place, social assumptions and preoccupations. High points include the old-fashioned chapter titles (“in which many difficulties are encountered”), and Akunin’s use of common tropes (orphanage, British charity patron, femme fatale, rogue boss) in unexpected ways, along with his deft plot twists. On the other hand, the characters’ obsessions — particularly with nuances of rank — felt so remote that I didn’t care all that much about them or how things turned out.
Rex Stout never wrote a Nero Wolfe mystery I didn’t love. His standard ingredients are outstanding: intriguing characters and situations, a fast-moving plot, and Wolfe’s Manhattan brownstone full of orchids, gourmet meals, and books, all presented to us by this Sherlock’s smart-alecky Watson, the clever, charming, resourceful Archie Goodwin. Where There’s a Will was particularly interesting to reread because it’s an early book, written before Stout got fully up to speed (pub date 1940). Therein lie my quibbles: a plethora of characters became a challenge to keep sorted; and the most intriguing oddity of the eponymous will remains a loose end. On the other hand, in spite of Wolfe’s horror of women, and the biases of the time, the three Hawthorne sisters are as capable and impressive as they are distinctive. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
In the mood for a quick summer sleuthing adventure? “Disarmed: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery Story” is FREE on iTunes, Google Play, Barnes & Noble, and most other e-outlets. (Amazon insists on charging $.99.)