By Boris Akunin
First published: Особые поручения, Zakharov Publishers, Moscow, 1999; first English language translation, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007, by Andrew Bromfield
English language blurb
A Jack of Spades and his fragrant accomplice; an eager young deputy and a fugitive countess; a game of cat and mouse and a series of savage murders: Erast Fandorin finds himself juggling them all in the new bestseller from the master of detective fiction, Boris Akunin.
In Special Assignments, Boris Akunin’s dashing and inimitable hero, Court Counsellor Fandorin, faces two very different adversaries.
The first is a wickedly mischievous swindler and master of disguise, whose outrageous con-tricks and machinations send ripples through the carefully maintained calm of late nineteenth-century Moscow. His calling card is the Jack of Spades.
The other is a brutal serial killer – nicknamed ‘The Decorator’ – driven by an insane, maniacal obsession, who strikes terror into the heart of the city’s slums, and who may have more in common with London’s Jack the Ripper than just a taste for women of easy virtue…
With twists and turns around every corner, and a cast of gloriously eccentric characters, Fandorin’s latest adventures test their gentleman sleuth’s powers of detection to the limit, and make for a fantastically entertaining read.
I’ve really enjoyed Akunin’s historical detective stories featuring Erast Fandorin, the Muscovite answer to Sherlock Holmes. They’re a terrific blend of adventure, mystery, and high politics.
Each one is written in a different sub-genre; of the first half-dozen, I most recommend Murder on the Leviathan, his Agatha Christie homage set on a steamship, and The Death of Achilles, an exuberant thriller about a hired assassin.
Here’s the trailer for the film adaptation of The State Counsellor, the political thriller story:
Special Assignments, number five in the series, is Akunin’s breakout book,: the bestseller that made his name in his native Russia.
The volume contains two contrasting novellas: a light-hearted caper story, and a grim serial killer story.
“The Jack of Spades” is fun. Erast Fandorin and his new assistant, pimply, jug-eared Anisii Tulipov, try to thwart the themes of the charming Rogue Momos and his girlfriend Mimi. Alternating chapters are told from the detectives and the crooks’ perspective, and all are in disguise – including, amusingly, Fandorin as an Indian rajah and Tulipov as a eunuch! Lots of twists and turns, and the story breezes along.
You’ll need a strong stomach for the other Jack story. I don’t suffer from what Paul Halter called Ripperomanie, so find REVULSION WARNING sliced-open wombs with squirming embryos, hacked-off faces, and (non-comic) cannibalism unpleasant to read about. Nausea aside, this is a tight, cleverly-plotted and fairly-clued detective story, with plenty of tension and spread of suspicion. But the subject matter and tragic ending make it one of Akunin’s less enjoyable stories.