Russian author Boris Akunin clearly delights in literary experimentation. The Winter Queen, his first novel to win U.S. release, was a police procedural, introducing a young but brilliant detective named Erast Petrovich Fandorin, serving in 1876 Moscow. However, Murder on the Leviathan (actually the third entry in the Fandorin series, but published second in the States) was quite different--an homage to formulaic Golden Age whodunits, taking place on a luxurious steamship. Now comes The Turkish Gambit, which is more a combination of war novel and romance, rather than crime fiction, with the majority of its mysteries so transparent as to barely merit the label.
The action here takes place in 1877 and 1878, on the Balkan front of a military conflict pitting tsarist Russia against the Ottoman Empire. Into this realm of posturing commanders and the foreign journalists whose florid prose makes those officers look better (or worse) than they really are ride Fandorin, now with the diplomatic corps, and Varya Suvorova, a strong-willed 22-year-old telegraphist hoping to reunite on the battlefield with her "future fiancÚ," an army volunteer. But Varya's efforts are frustrated when her intended is accused of espionage. His release can only be won by identifying the real informant-cum-saboteur, in which task Varya is willing to cooperate with Fandorin, despite her dislike of the stuttering and apparently "cold, disagreeable" former policeman. Amid profuse digressions concerning Turkish politics, female suffrage, and the harem system ("without it many women would quite simply starve to death"), Varya--trailed by lustful correspondents--investigates a suspicious colonel in Bucharest, only to become party to a deadly duel. A pair of officers are subsequently murdered, a guilt-ridden soldier hangs himself, and a British plot against Russia is alleged.
Akunin (the pseudonym of Grigory Chkhartishvili) nimbly portrays the tumultuous atmosphere of 19th-century combat, complete with ear-splitting cannon blasts and hard-charging cossacks. His dialogue is frequently clever, and in Varya he has created a woman fully capable of steering yarns and stopping hearts. Yet The Turkish Gambit is so laden with expendable exchanges, trivial players, and hieings off to hither and yon, that the reader's interest may wane well short of this story's dramatic climax. --J. Kingston Pierce [via]