Akunin, Boris - 'The Diamond Chariot' (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
THE DIAMOND CHARIOT is the tenth, and apparently final instalment in the popular Erast Fandorin series by prolific Russian author Boris Akunin. The novel is split into two sections, with the start of the novel being set in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War, but the bulk of the action takes place in Yokohama, Japan, in 1878. Fandorin's time in Japan is often alluded to in previous novels in the series, but not depicted until this book.
At the start of the book, Fandorin is a consultant to the Railway Gendarmerie in St. Petersburg, responsible for security. Russian railway security is of great importance to the wartime Russian empire, to maintains the supplies of goods and troops to the front. As part of his job, he is sent to investigate a damaged railway bridge. Fandorin soon realises that the bridge was destroyed due to deliberate sabotage. Up to date with the latest investigative techniques, including use of sniffer dogs, Fandorin protects the rail networks most vulnerable points, while tracking down the saboteurs. Meanwhile, in chapters written from the point of view of one of the terrorists, we encounter the mysterious and probably bogus ex-army officer Rybnikov, an adept schemer and fighter gifted in the arts of deception. Rybnikov liaises with corrupt rail employees and anarchists to carry out further terrorist acts. As Fandorin gets ever closer to capturing him, Rybnikov becomes more and more ruthless, and the body count mounts.
The second part of the book goes back in time to 1878, to Fandorin's youth, when, a few years out of boarding school, he was sent to Japan as vice-consul to Yokohama. Keen to learn as much as possible about this intriguing country and its culture, he is soon thrown into the deep end, investigating the suspicious death of an old alcoholic Russian seaman in the Rakuen, a gambling den of ill repute. Together with the Japanese police and the US police, he finds a trail of clues leads from the gambling den to Yakuza gangsters, ninja assassins and high level political assassination plots, and he is never quite sure who he can trust. Along the way Fandorin falls in love with the beautiful courtesan O Yumi, an expert in the arts of love and strategy, and has his first encounter with Masa, Fandorin's Japanese servant and foil throughout the series.
Fandorin remains an engaging combination of gentleman, cerebral detective, master spy and martial artist, and he negotiates a murky political world and demi-monde with finesse. The Japanese section set in Yokohama that forms the main body of the novel, is great fun, providing a bracing account of the culture clash between the early Western visitors to Japan and the Japanese, (Akunin derives great humour in playing around with national stereotypes of Russians, Americans, British and Japanese). I also found Akunin's account of the younger, more naive Fandorin enjoyable and convincing.THE DIAMOND CHARIOT is a entertaining and bracingly written political thriller, if at 500 pages, a touch over-long. At times I found the plot a little convoluted in terms of remembering who was conspiring against whom, which wasn't helped by the switching in perspective between Fandorin, Rybnikov and other Russian investigators in the first section. Overall this is an enjoyable, well written novel, with a real sting in its tail, but unless you already have an interest in Japan history, it's probably not the ideal entry point to the series.
Laura Root, England