Murder on the Leviathan (Erast Fandorin Series #2)

Murder on the Leviathan (Erast Fandorin Series #2)

4.0 8
by Boris Akunin, Andrew Bromfield

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Paris, 1878: Eccentric antiquarian Lord Littleby and his ten servants are found murdered in Littleby’s mansion on the rue de Grenelle, and a priceless Indian shawl is missing. Police commissioner “Papa” Gauche recovers only one piece of evidence from the crime scene: a golden key shaped like a whale. Gauche soon deduces that the key is in fact a…  See more details below


Paris, 1878: Eccentric antiquarian Lord Littleby and his ten servants are found murdered in Littleby’s mansion on the rue de Grenelle, and a priceless Indian shawl is missing. Police commissioner “Papa” Gauche recovers only one piece of evidence from the crime scene: a golden key shaped like a whale. Gauche soon deduces that the key is in fact a ticket of passage for the Leviathan, a gigantic steamship soon to depart Southampton on its maiden voyage to Calcutta. The murderer must be among its passengers.

In Cairo, the ship is boarded by a young Russian diplomat with a shock of white hair—none other than Erast Fandorin, the celebrated detective of Boris Akunin’s The Winter Queen. The sleuth joins forces with Gauche to determine which of ten unticketed passengers on the Leviathan is the rue de Grenelle killer.

Tipping his hat to Agatha Christie, Akunin assembles a colorful cast of suspects—including a secretive Japanese doctor, a professor who specializes in rare Indian artifacts, a pregnant Swiss woman, and an English aristocrat with an appetite for collecting Asian treasures—all of whom are con?ned together until the crime is solved. As the Leviathan steams toward Calcutta, will Fandorin be able to out-investigate Gauche and discover who the killer is, even as the ship’s passengers are murdered, one by one?

Already an international sensation, Boris Akunin’s latest page-turner transports the reader back to the glamorous, dangerous past in a richly atmospheric tale of suspense on the high seas.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Marilyn Stasio
Snappishly witty in Andrew Bromfield's crisp translation, Akunin's dry observations on the moral poverty of the upper classes are drolly set off by his lush descriptions of the material luxuries by which they measure the value of life itself.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Akunin writes like a hybrid of Caleb Carr, Agatha Christie and Elizabeth Peters in his second mystery to be published in the U.S., set on the maiden voyage of the British luxury ship Leviathan, en route to India in the spring of 1878. Akunin's young Russian detective/diplomat protagonist, Erast Fandorin, has matured considerably since his debut in last year's highly praised The Winter Queen, set in 1876, and proves a worthy foil to French police commissioner Gustave Gauche, who boards the Leviathan because a clue suggests that one of the passengers murdered a wealthy British aristocrat, seven servants and two children in his Paris home and stole priceless Indian treasures. The intuitive, methodical Fandorin, who joins the ship at Port Said, soon slyly takes over the investigation and comes up with an eclectic group of suspects, all with secrets to hide, whom Gauche assigns to the same dining room. The company recite humorous or instructive stories that slow down the action but eventually relate to the identification of the killer. Gauche offers at least four solutions to the crimes, but in each case Fandorin debates or debunks his reasoning. The atmospheric historical detail gives depth to the twisting plot, while the ruthless yet poignant arch villain makes up for a cast of mostly cardboard characters. Readers disappointed by the lack of background on Fandorin will find plenty in The Winter Queen. Agent, Linda Michaels at Ltd International. (May 4) FYI: Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, a native of Georgia who has written 10 Erast Fandorin mysteries to date. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1878, a horrible murder shakes Paris; Lord Littleby's skull has been cracked open, a precious statue is missing, and seven servants and two children in the household lie supine, dispatched by poison. Blustery "Papa" Gauche deduces that the killer will board the Leviathan, a luxurious cruise ship making its maiden voyage to India, and he arranges passage. In short order, he collects suspect passengers in a salon and attempts to entrap them, only to be quietly shown up by a young Russian diplomat named Erast Fandorin. Yes, Fandorin, star of The White Queen, Akunin's scintillating English-language debut, has returned in good form. This is another intelligent and deftly plotted work by Russian philologist/mystery writer Akunin, perhaps a bit more traditional in approach than The White Queen (as the publicity suggests, it's obviously an homage to Agatha Christie) but still full of surprises and incisive in its characterization and psychological depth. Essential for mystery collections.-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-In Paris, in 1878, a wealthy collector of Eastern and Far Eastern art is brutally murdered. The only items stolen are a statue and small scarf, and the only apparent clue is a whale-shaped pin that acts as a first-class pass for the Leviathan, a British luxury ship on its maiden voyage to India. Gustave Gauche, an arrogant French police commissioner, joins the voyage to find and trap the killer. The list of suspects is quickly narrowed down to some French and British aristocrats; select members of the ship's staff; a Japanese doctor; and Erast Fandorin, a Russian traveler and crime solver who starred in Akunin's The Winter Queen (Random, 2003). As the Leviathan moves on, the book alternates the point of view chapter by chapter, giving readers each suspect's perspective on everything from the murders to pet peeves. Personal items go missing, suspects begin to die, and everyone suspects everyone else in a style to rival Agatha Christie's. As Gauche's control over the situation continues to degenerate, Fandorin takes over and finally pieces the full story together in an almost Holmesian manner. While the basic formula is hugely borrowed from Christie, it's the unique clash of cultures and the interactions of the characters that set this book apart. Alongside so many mysteries and thrillers that revolve around grisly violence, Leviathan, with its tony action scenes and overall genteel feel, comes off as a charming and fun read.-Matthew L. Moffett, Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This exemplary retro period puzzler, a Russian bestseller, pits two detectives against each other in a race to pick the murderer from a table of first-class passengers aboard a British steamship's maiden voyage. Two weeks before the 1878 sailing, that well-known collector Lord Littleby had been beaten to death in his Paris home by a ruthless killer who left no fewer than nine guards, servants, and children of the household dead on the floor below before making off with a golden statuette of Shiva. A clue clutched in Littleby's hand leads Commissioner Gustave Gauche to book passage on the Leviathan, en route to the mysterious East. On board, he swiftly narrows the list of primary suspects to four. Each of them-a troubled baronet, an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, the pregnant wife of a Swiss banker, and a faded English spinster-is given alternate chapters in which to watch and describe the others, and the results can stand with the most ingenious Golden Age stories, as Papa Gauche and Russian diplomat Erast P. Fandorin (The Winter Queen, not reviewed) match wits to unmask the killer and explode each other's theories, as they do repeatedly over a mounting body count of avid dilettantes. The imperial/aristocratic milieu pays homage to Agatha Christie, the fiendlishly clever Chinese-box plotting to Ellery Queen. Akunin's most distinctive contribution is a tone of dryly amused irony that continues to the last sad line.
From the Publisher
“Murder on the Leviathan harks back gratifyingly to the cerebral nature of this genre. . . . A nostalgically civilized spirit, even in the presence of murder.”
The New York Times

“Intricate and marvelous . . . addictively dazzling . . . Akunin’s agile leaps of time, tone, and narrative style are matched by a frisky erudition: The book itself is a luxury literary cruise.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Fiendishly witty . . . [Akunin] knows his Arthur Conan Doyle, and his Fandorin likes to indulge in showy displays of Holmesian observations.”

“A crafty puzzle in a sophisticated setting.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Enjoyable . . . [with] a rich trove of historical details that are both fun to read and illuminating.”
The Los Angeles Times Book Review

Praise for Boris Akunin:

“[Akunin’s Erast Fandorin] novels feature a Slavic Sherlock Holmes who speaks Japanese and English, is skilled at martial arts and has lady-killer good looks....Millions of readers have been seduced by the books’ elegant style and classy, retro feel.”
The Wall Street Journal

“[Akunin is] the Russian Ian Fleming....[The Winter Queen] features abduction, villains, beautiful women and, of course, espionage....Akunin’s accomplished writing is a treat.”
—Ruth Rendell

“Akunin’s prose is clean and swift, pausing only to set a scene with a few well-chosen details before resuming the hairpin curves of the action. If Pushkin had tried his hand at detective ?ction, it might have turned out something like this.”
The New York Times Book Review

“A warning to readers: after ?nishing this novel you will need more novels featuring Erast Fandorin....Akunin succeeds in transporting us completely into nineteenth-century Russia, yet the novel is a definitively modern mystery.”
—Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club

“A tasty dish...There are secret panels, hidden tunnels, a false mustache, intercepted letters, gunfights, and a glamorous female villain....Akunin knows how to build suspense, but he also enjoys himself; he shows the reader a good time.”
The Boston Globe

“Marries old-fashioned manners to a nonstop array of plot twists to rival the best detective tales. The Winter Queen is an energetic hands-down winner.”

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Erast Fandorin Series , #2
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part one


Commissioner Gauche

At Port Said another passenger boarded the Leviathan, occupying stateroom number eighteen, the last first-class cabin still vacant, and Gustave Gauche’s mood immediately improved. The newcomer looked highly promising: that self-assured and unhurried way of carrying himself, that inscrutable expression on the handsome face. At first glance he seemed quite young, but when he removed his bowler hat, the hair on his temples was unexpectedly gray. A curious specimen, the commissioner decided. It was clear straight off that he had character and what they call “a past.” All in all, definitely a client for papa Gauche.

The passenger walked up the gangway, swinging his shoulder bag, while the porters sweated as they struggled under the weight of his ample baggage: expensive suitcases that squeaked, high-quality pigskin traveling bags, huge bundles of books, and even a folding tricycle (one large wheel, two small ones, and an array of gleaming metal tubes). Bringing up the rear came two poor devils lugging an imposing set of gymnastic weights.

Gauche’s heart, the heart of an old sleuth (as the commissioner himself was fond of testifying), had thrilled to the lure of the hunt when the newcomer proved to have no golden badge—neither on the silk lapel of his dandified summer coat, nor on his jacket, nor on his watch chain. Warmer now, very warm, thought Gauche, vigilantly scrutinizing the fop from beneath his bushy brows and puffing on his favorite clay pipe. But of course, why had he, old fool that he was, assumed the murderer would board the steamship at Southampton? The crime was committed on the fifteenth of March, and today was already the first of April. It would have been perfectly easy to reach Port Said while the Leviathan was rounding the western rim of Europe. And there you had it, everything fitted: the right kind of character for a client, plus a first-class ticket, plus the most important thing—no golden whale.

For some time Gauche’s dreams had been haunted by that accursed badge with the abbreviated title of the Jasper-Artaud Partnership steamship company, and without exception his dreams had been uncommonly bad. Take the latest, for instance.

The commissioner was out boating with Mme. Gauche in the Bois de Boulogne. The sun was shining high in the sky and the birds were twittering in the trees. Suddenly a gigantic golden face with inanely goggling eyes loomed up over the treetops, opened cavernous jaws that could have accommodated the Arc de Triomphe with ease, and began sucking in the pond. Gauche broke into a sweat and laid on the oars. Meanwhile it transpired that events were not taking place in the park at all, but in the middle of a boundless ocean. The oars buckled like straws, Mme. Gauche was jabbing him painfully in the back with her umbrella, and an immense gleaming carcass blotted out the entire horizon. When it spouted a fountain that eclipsed half the sky, the commissioner woke up and began fumbling around on his bedside table with trembling fingers—where were his pipe and those matches?

Gauche had first laid eyes on the golden whale at the Rue de Grenelle, when he was examining Lord Littleby’s earthly remains. The Englishman lay there with his mouth open in a soundless scream—his false teeth had come halfway out and his forehead was a bloody soufflé. Gauche squatted down: He thought he had caught a glimpse of gold glinting between the corpse’s fingers. Taking a closer look, he chortled in delight. Here was a stroke of uncommonly good luck, the kind that occurred only in crime novels. The helpful corpse had literally handed the investigation an important clue—and not even on a plate, but in the palm of its hand. There you are, Gustave, take it. And may you die of shame if you dare let the person who smashed my head open get away, you old numskull.

The golden emblem (at first, of course, Gauche had not known that it was an emblem; he had thought it was a bracelet charm or a monogrammed hairpin) could only have belonged to the murderer. Naturally, just to be sure, the commissioner had shown the whale to the junior manservant (what a lucky lad—the fifteenth of March was his day off, and that had saved his life!), but the manservant had never seen his lordship with the trinket before.

After that the entire ponderous mechanism of the police system had whirred into action, flywheels twirling and pinions spinning, as the minister and the prefect threw their very finest forces into solving “the crime of the century.” By the evening of the following day Gauche already knew that the three letters on the golden whale were not the initials of some prodigal hopelessly mired in debt, but the insignia of a newly established Franco-British shipping consortium. The whale proved to be the emblem of the miracle ship Leviathan, newly off the slipway at Bristol and currently being readied for its maiden voyage to India.

The newspapers had been trumpeting the praises of the gigantic steamship for more than a month. Now it transpired that on the eve of the Leviathan’s first sailing the London Mint had produced gold and silver commemorative badges: gold for the first-class passengers and senior officers of the ship, silver for second-class passengers and subalterns. Aboard this luxurious vessel, where the achievements of modern science were combined with an unprecedented degree of comfort, no provision at all was made for third class. The company guaranteed travelers a comprehensive service, making it unnecessary to take servants along on the voyage. “The shipping line’s attentive valets and tactful maids are on hand to ensure that you feel entirely at home on the Leviathan,” promised the advertisement printed in newspapers right across Europe. Those fortunate individuals who had booked a cabin for the first cruise from Southampton to Calcutta received a gold or silver whale with their ticket, according to their class—and a ticket could be booked in any major European port, from London to Constantinople.

Very well, then, having the emblem of the Leviathan was less useful than having the initials of its owner, but this only complicated matters slightly, the commissioner had reasoned. There was a strictly limited number of gold badges. All he had to do was to wait until the nineteenth of March (that was the day appointed for the triumphant first sailing), go to Southampton, board the steamer, and see which of the first-class passengers was missing a golden whale. Or else (this was more likely), which of the passengers who had laid out the money for a ticket failed to turn up for boarding. That would be papa Gauche’s client. Simple as potato soup.

Gauche thoroughly disliked traveling, but this time he couldn’t resist. He badly wanted to solve the Crime of the Century himself. Who could tell, they might just make him a superintendent at long last. He had only three years left to retirement. A third-class pension was one thing; a second-class pension was different altogether. The difference was one and a half thousand francs a year, and that kind of money didn’t grow on trees.

So he had taken the job on. He thought he would just nip across to Southampton and then, at worst, sail as far as Le Havre (the first stop), where there would be gendarmes and reporters lined up on the quayside. A big headline in the Revue Parisienne: “Crime of the Century Solved: Our Police Rise to the Occasion.” Or better yet: “Old Sleuth Gauche Pulls It Off!”

But ha! The first unpleasant surprise had been waiting for the commissioner at the shipping line office in Southampton, where he discovered that the infernally huge steamship had a hundred first-class cabins and ten senior officers. All the tickets had been sold: all hundred and thirty-two of them. And a gold badge had been issued with each one. Yes—a total of a hundred and forty-two suspects. But then, only one of them would have no badge, Gauche had reassured himself.

On the morning of the nineteenth of March, the commissioner, wrapped up against the damp wind in a warm woollen muffler, had been standing close to the gangway beside the captain, Mr. Josiah Cliff, and the first lieutenant, M. Charles Renier. They were greeting the passengers. The brass band played English and French marching tunes in turn, the crowd on the pier generated an excited buzz, and Gauche puffed away in a rising fury, biting down hard on his wholly blameless pipe. For, alas, due to the cold weather all the passengers were wearing raincoats, overcoats, greatcoats, or capotes. Just try figuring out who has a badge and who doesn’t! That was unpleasant surprise number two.

Everyone due to board the steamship in Southampton had arrived, indicating that the criminal must have shown up for the sailing despite the loss of the badge. Evidently he must think policemen were total idiots. Or was he hoping to lose himself in the immense crowd? Or perhaps he simply had no other choice?

In any case, one thing was clear: Gauche would have to go as far as Le Havre. He had been allocated the cabin reserved for honored guests of the shipping line.

Immediately after the ship had sailed a banquet was held in the first-class grand salon, an event the commissioner had especially high hopes for, since the invitations bore the instruction “Admission on presentation of a gold badge or first-class ticket.” Why would anyone bother to carry a ticket around when it was so much simpler to pin on your little gold leviathan?

At the banquet Gauche let his imagination run wild as he mentally frisked everyone present. He was even obliged to stick his nose into some ladies’ décolletés to check whether they had anything dangling in there on a gold chain, perhaps a whale, perhaps simply a pendant. How could he not check?

Everyone was drinking champagne, nibbling on various savory delicacies from silver trays, and dancing, but Gauche was hard at work, eliminating from his list those who had their badge in place. The men caused him the biggest problems. Many of the swine had attached the whale to their watch chains or even stuck it in their waistcoat pockets, and the commissioner was obliged to inquire after the exact time on eleven occasions.

Surprise number three was that all the officers had their badges in place, but no less than four passengers were wearing no emblem, including two of the female sex! The blow that had cracked open Lord Littleby’s skull like a nutshell was so powerful it could surely have been struck only by a man, and a man of exceptional strength at that. On the other hand, as a highly experienced specialist in criminal matters, the commissioner was well aware that in a fit of passion or hysterical excitement even the weakest of ladies was capable of performing genuine miracles. He had no need to look far for examples. Why, only last year a milliner from Neuilly, a frail little chit of a thing, had thrown her unfaithful lover out a fourth-floor window—and he had been a well-nourished rentier twice as fat and half as tall again as herself. So it would not do at all to eliminate women who happened to have no badge from the list of suspects. Although who had ever heard of a woman, especially a woman of good society, mastering the knack of administering injections like that?

With one thing and another, the investigation on board the Leviathan threatened to drag on, and so the commissioner had set about dealing with things in his customary thorough fashion. Captain Josiah Cliff was the only officer of the steamship who had been made privy to the secret investigation, and he had instructions from the management of the shipping company to afford the French guardian of the law every possible assistance. Gauche exploited this privilege quite unceremoniously by demanding that all individuals of interest to him be assigned to the same salon.

It should be explained at this point that, out of considerations of privacy and comfort (after all, the ship’s advertisement had claimed: “On board, you will discover the atmosphere of a fine old English country estate”), those individuals traveling first-class were not expected to take their meals in the vast dining hall along with the six hundred bearers of democratic silver whales, but were assigned to their own comfortable “salons,” each of which bore its own aristocratic title and looked like a high-class hotel: crystal chandeliers, stained oak and mahogany, velvet-upholstered chairs, gleaming silver tableware, prim waiters, and officious stewards. For his own purposes Commissioner Gauche had singled out the Windsor Salon, located on the upper deck in the very bow of the ship: Its three walls of continuous window afforded a magnificent view, so that even on overcast days there was no need to switch on the lamps. The velvet upholstery here was a fine shade of golden brown and the linen table napkins were adorned with the Windsor coat of arms.

Set around the oval table with its legs bolted to the floor (a precaution against any likelihood of severe pitching and rolling) were ten chairs with their tall backs carved in designs incorporating a motley assortment of gothic decorative flourishes. The commissioner liked the idea of everyone sitting around the same table, and he had ordered the steward not to set out the nameplates at random, but with strategic intent: He had seated the four passengers without badges directly opposite himself so that he could keep a close eye on those particular birds. It had not proved possible to seat the captain himself at the head of the table, as Gauche had planned. Mr. Josiah Cliff did not wish (as he himself had expressed it) “to have any part in this charade,” and had chosen to base himself in the York Salon, where the new viceroy of India was taking his meals with his wife and two generals of the Indian army. York was located in the prestigious stern, as far removed as possible from plague-stricken Windsor, where the head of the table was taken by first mate Charles Renier. The commissioner had taken an instant dislike to Renier, with that face bronzed by the sun and the wind, that honeyed way of speaking, that head of dark hair gleaming with brilliantine, that dyed mustache with its two spruce little curls. He was a buffoon, not a sailor.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Murder on the Leviathan (Erast Fandorin Series #2) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous 8 months ago
I adore a good and honest to all mystery and detective story. This one did not dissapoint me. Fandorin is fantastico! Penderghast I have met your twin. It may be another time frame, but Fandorin is your match. I will continue to read Boris Akunin books. Thanks for the review it helped me to take the chance on a different author.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I read all Akunin books. He is huge in Russia. Akunin is a very intelligent and well educated man. Before writing book, I think, he is doing a lot of research about ppl, language, culture of the past. When I read his books i trust him on every detail. This book is my favorite.It reminds me of Agatha Christie. Fandorin is older than in Winter Queen, so he is more mature. In second book, Turkish Gambit, he is very confident and full of himself as well. You begin kind of love and hate this guy. But I think Akunin try to show Fandorin as human, who has his +/-. Anyway, please read this book. This author ll never disapoint u.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading The Winter Queen, I was excited to read another Boris Akunin novel. I was hoping to follow Erast Fandorin's thought development in solving the misteries -- which unfolds nicely in The Winter Queen, but is less evident here. Erast in Leviathan is too sure of himself. He jumped from being a bright but shy officer in The Winter Queen to a slighly arrogant Mr. Know-It-All onboard the Leviathan. I don't think the first-person narration approach from some of the suspects worked to the advantage of the novel. If I ever get to another Boris Akunin novel, I will make sure to flip through the pages so I don't get stuck reading another one with this format. I need Erast's slight misfortune and sadness to make him human again.