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For this month we review Russia's very own Sherlock Holmes, and take a look at Russian architecture
The Winter Queen

by Boris Akunin, translated by Andrew Bromfield

In the month when there will be two films playing in Russian cinemas which are based upon bestselling novels written by Boris Akunin - Turkish Gambit and The State Counsellor - we thought that we should review The Winter Queen, the book which first introduced Erast Petrovich Fandorin, private detective and prig.

Prig is not the word used by Russian critics to describe Russia's newest, most popular, matinee idol, but it is hard we think to like a hero who is so saintly. He is described as a "most comely youth," with "girlish eyelashes." He is vain (he wears a corset). He is always the gentleman. He is too good to be true (or believable).

Perhaps it is the style of Akunin's writing which gets in the way of our appreciation of Fandorin's more human characteristics. Here is how it all started:

"Chapter One
in which an account is rendered of a certain cynical escapade:

On Monday the thirteenth of May in the year 1876, between the hours of two and three in the afternoon on a day that combined the freshness of spring with the warmth of summer, numerous individuals in Moscow's Alexander Gardens unexpectedly found themselves eyewitnesses to the perpetration of an outrage that flagrantly transgressed the bounds of common decency."

The high-flown, affected, nineteenth-century literary style is Akunin's trademark, and the translation by Andrew Bromfield is faithful to the purple prose of the original Russian. The Winter Queen is set in late-nineteenth-century St Petersburg, Moscow and London, and Akunin describes each city with as much detail as an old Baedeker guide. If you want to know what Chistoprudny Boulevard was like in 1876, or what restaurants were in fashion in St Petersburg, you will love The Winter Queen.

As for the plot of the novel, there is a worldwide conspiracy, a mad professor, a beautiful, rich virgin - all the elements of Conan Doyle. Akunin is writing pastiche, creating a world that is as impossible as James Bond, and that perhaps is the key to the book's success. Erast Fandorin is about escapism.

242 pages, ISBN 081297221X, Random House

A History of Russian Architecture

by William Craft Brumfield

One of the few studies of Russian culture that stand alone as a gold standard in scholarship is William Craft Brumfield's A History of Russian Architecture, published in an expanded version in 2004 by University of Washington Press. It is the only comprehensive study in English of Russian architecture within the context of history and culture, and, luckily for readers, it is meticulously researched, lucidly written (even for those who know nothing of architecture), and illustrated by the author's own beautiful and evocative photographs (now collected by the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., see Brumfield examines churches, public and private buildings, from the most lavish palaces to the simplest peasant izba from the Kievan period through the Soviet era, tugging at the thread of the Russian architectural imagination to define it as it changed and adapted Western styles and construction techniques, yet still remained undeniably Russian. His photographs and text place a structure - be it a parish church, a tsar's palace or a theatre - in the landscape, the time period and the culture. If you are ready to graduate from three-hour tours of "architectural ensembles" and picture albums to a deeper understanding of the magnificent architecture that surrounds you, A History of Russian Architecture is the only companion and teacher you need.

752 pages, ISBN: 0295983949, University of Washington Press

© 2005 Jeremy Noble