With this summer's publication by Random House of The Winter Queen, the American reader will finally have a chance to savor what is without doubt the most interesting phenomenon in Russia's contemporary literary marketplace. Published in 1998 as Azazel, it was the first detective novel by the then 42 year-old Grigory Chkhartishvili, a professional philologist, literary critic, editor and translator of classic Japanese literature who writes under the pseudonym Boris Akunin.
Today, Chkhartisvhili is Russia's most popular writer, having sold over 8 million copies since 1998 despite their unusually high--for Russian books--price of a ruble equivalent of almost $3 each (his latest book, Almaznaya Kolesnitza, or "The Diamond Chariot", sold its first printing of 200,000 in a week's time). His success in Russia is particularly startling, since none of his books contains the ingredients said to be the sine qua non of popularity in a post-authoritarian, post-censorship literary market: There is little sex (and its brief descriptions are positively Victorian); fights, while brutal and explicitly portrayed, are infrequent; the language is not just clean but pristinely old-fashioned. The texts are crafted carefully and tastefully after the classic 19th-century Russian prose of Nikolai Leskov, Ivan Goncharov and Sergei Aksakov, with echoes of Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Indeed, every novel in the Fandorin series is dedicated:
"To the Nineteenth Century, when literature was great, the belief in progress boundless, and crimes were committed and solved with elegance and taste."