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Tsars in their eyes

<strong>The Coronation</strong>

Boris Akunin

<em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 311pp, £16.99</em>

Butler-narrators make fluent apologists for unsavoury political systems. In Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day Mr Stevens's loyalty to his pro-Nazi master Lord Darlington does not waver when Ribbentrop comes to tea, and now, in Boris Akunin's new novel, imperial Russia finds a staunch defendant in Afanasii Stepano­vich, gentleman's gentleman to the House of Romanov.

The Coronation is the latest outing for Akunin's swashbuckling private detective Erast Fandorin. The action is set in Moscow during that narrow period of history when tsars and telephones coexisted. A juvenile member of the Russian royalty is kidnapped by the dastardly Dr Lind. As a ransom, this criminal mastermind demands the Orlov diamond, a priceless jewel without which the imminent imperial coronation of the title cannot take place.

Fandorin, moustachioed and supported by his oriental sidekick, Masa, is the vehicle that has brought Akunin phenomenal success in his home country - his detective novels have sold 18 million copies in Russia. In this new tale, however, the more interesting character is the narrator and career servant Afanasii, a bachelor butler married to the Romanovs. His role as the stiff-lipped valet dragged into a world of high adventure is competently written - but most intriguing to the foreign reader is Afanasii's giddy enthusiasm for the tsarist regime. At one point, he gushingly describes the monarchy as "the radiant halo of Russian statehood".

These are the character's views and perhaps not those of the author; nonetheless, The Coronation is a novel laced with nostalgia. Akunin has written a work of post-communist literature glutted with a Waugh-like reverie for pre-revolutionary debauch. This is a book that turns away from today's Russia of oil and oligarchs to lust openly for the ancien régime.

Fandorin himself, however, comes across as an attempt to write a multifaceted and plausible character by a writer who then gets carried away with his lady-killing super-sleuth. In an attempt to humanise his hero, Akunin makes him stutter in Russian and pursue the occasional red herring. But Erast Petrovich, dragging his patronymic behind him through the text, is still a man whose "trade was risk" and who "constantly toyed with danger".

The result is not entirely convincing. Akunin, the dust jacket of the novel promises, has been compared with Gogol and Tolstoy, but in Russian literature his creation's antecedent is perhaps Pechorin, who marauds the Caucasus among the footpads and brigands of Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time.

The Coronation is also inescapably a work of translation. The street argot of the Moscow underworld flounders out of the Russian and comes across as Kipling-esque pastiche. Moreover, beyond its enthusiasm for bejewelled dictatorship, the value system of the novel is out of kilter with the century of its composition, in particular with regard to sexuality. Towards the denouement, it appears that the gang of kidnappers is in fact some kind of international gay mafia, as though, before the Comintern-spawning revolution that will depose it, the royal household is being held hostage by the Homintern. Here Akunin writes about the dog days of tsarist Russia while seeing it through the moral lens of the 1950s.

Eventually the gay mafia theory is disproved, but, paradoxically, it is this very shiftiness of plot that is the other great weakness of the novel. Granted, twists and turns are essential to a well-spun detective yarn, but in The Coronation the narrative thread gets rather tangled. Dr Lind's "real" identity shifts so many times that, when the grand unmasking at last occurs, it lacks finality. It is as if, after attempting to inject humanity into Fandorin, Akunin tried to incorporate the loose ends of real life into his storytelling, and in so doing fractured the sense of closure that detective fiction needs. Still, Erast Petrovich lives to fight another day, and for his many aficionados that can only be a good thing.