Special Assignments by Boris Akunin (335 p.)
This is two-fer in the Erast Fandorin mystery series as it is actually two novellas that have been printed together, “The Jack of Spades” and “The Decorator”. “The Jack of Spades” is a comedic farce that centers on a con man that has, amongst other things, sold the Governor of Moscow’s house while the Governor was still residing there. The tone quickly darkens in “The Decorator” which focuses on a Jack the Ripper type of serial killer prowling the streets of Moscow. Both stories are largely told from the point of view of other characters, and in the second novella, even that of the killer.
This was apparently the book that started it all. Although it is the fifth book in the series, the previous entries didn’t sell that well. However, when this came out, it was an immediate best seller and brought the series to high acclaim. I can’t say that I really understand why this one, and not say Murder on the Leviathan, was the big draw. That’s not say the book was bad; it was well written and very enjoyable, but it just doesn’t scream OMG BEST THING EVER to me.
Reviews tend to make a rather lot of how well Akunin presents Victorian Russia, particularly when it comes to the politics of the period. While reading Special Assignments, it struck me that it’s more than just the politics, it’s that the entire cultural context seems to be so well fleshed out. Everything from class to portrayal of minority stereotypes is spot on, to the point that an understanding of it can greatly help you interpret or solve the novels themselves.
Even if this wasn’t my favorite in the series, I’m definitely going to continue reading it and very likely will be checking out the Russian film adaptations of the books.
The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie (201p.)
The only reason I picked this up was because it was lying around and I like a good mystery, particularly a Christie. It occurred to me that, although I had seen snippets of the things on PBS and such, I had never actually read and of the Miss Marple series. So I figured what the heck, one is as good as another, right?
This has to have had the absolute least Miss Marple possible to qualify as a Miss Marple mystery. I guess I assumed that Miss Marple would do some… marpling, or something, and figure things out. As it was, she came in at the absolute last minute and just knitted a tea cozy. Being my first ‘Miss Marple’ story I have no idea if that is par for the course, but the old bird certainly seemed more lively on PBS.
Still, it was a great read and is an interesting little mystery. It’s told from the point of view of a Londoner who is on strict doctor’s order to rest and recuperate in the countryside after suffering an airman’s injury. As he and his sister settle into village life, someone begins sending unsavory anonymous letters to just about everyone in town. One thing leads to another and people begin to die. The police and our protagonist are on a race to figure whodunit before another innocent dies. The plot was clever and I appreciated that even the village police are treated with respect and not characterized as complete buffoons. I can’t say that I’m dying to read another Miss Marple, but I’m certainly not going to turn stick my nose up at another Christie.