I have not read The Winter Queen, the first Erast Fandorin Mystery by Boris Akunin (born Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili in 1956 in Georgia). The Turkish Gambit was the third published in English (after Murder on the Leviathan, which sounds very Agatha Christie a setup on a boat), but the second one in Russian,
If it were not part of a series, I would not have thought to classify it as a mystery. There is not a narrator, but the protagonist and the novel’s point of view are a 22-year old aristocratic Muscovite who fancies herself a modern, independent woman, Vavara Surovova. Vavara has trained as a midwife but was too squeamish for that and learned Morse code, but was bored as a telegraphist.
The man she loves, Pyotr Yabloko, generally referred to as Varya, has gone off to the Balkans as a cryptographer; Vavara decides to join him, disguised as a boy. She is quickly robbed of her money and belongings by the man she hired to take her to Russian headquarters, and is saved from being carried off by bandits by a group that includes Erast Fandorin, the close-mouthed spy-catcher (counter-intelligence agent).
She is allowed to remain at headquarters as Fandorin’s secretary. Vavara is charged with treason for an altered telegram that sent troops to the wrong place, allowing the Ottoman (Turkish) army to occupy the place to which the Russian troops should have gone.
Though the charges against Varya lessen in severity over the course of the novel, he remains imprisoned through most of it, and is a minor character. Fandorin is a more major one, though no more so than the dashing reporter Michel Paladin from the Revue Parisienne and the stolid Seamus McLaughlin from London’s Daily Post or the Romanian count, Col. Lukan. Between military disasters, the war correspondents play cards with Lukan, who loses large sums. Being the only woman around, Vavara receives a lot of attention including a duel she blocks and two she is unable to prevent (one of which results in the death of a conspirator she was attempting to glean information from).
Someone (or more than one someone) is supplying the Ottoman commanders information about Russian plans during the long and bloody 1877 siege of Plevna (in what is now Bulgaria and called Pleven).
There are multiple battle scenes and an audience with Czar Alexander II (who had emancipated the serfs in 1861 and would be assassinated in 1881). A lot of suspects die along the way, which does not make deciding who the spy is easier, since suspicions of the dead characters increase with their removal from the ranks of the living.
I consider most of this “spy fiction” rather than “murder mystery,” and suspect that those seeking a mystery novel would be put off with all the geopolitics and portrayal of mores of the time. There were reform attempts ongoing both within the Russian and the Ottoman Empires, and the well-known restlessness with the czarist edifice on the part of disparate groups of dissidents.
Akunin seems to have more than a little sympathy for the spy, who has a concern with Russian expansion toward the Mediterranean that was shared by successive governments in Paris and London. French and British propped up for the Ottoman Empire at least two centuries. The Russian bear was viewed with profound distrust by the Hapsburg (Austro-Hungarian) Empire as well. The clash of civilizations in the 19th-century was not Christian vs. Muslim. More like pan-Slavs vs. non-Slavs. And the spark that set off the carnage of the First World War exploded in the Balkans (not to underestimate the smug certainties of military commanders on all sides eager for war).
The long decline of the Ottoman Empire and the pan-Slavic identity-mongering of the northern Slavs (Russians) was consequential, even if Americans were not paying attention at the time and don’t know the history now, even though the ethnic and sociopolitical reform mobilizations there and then are still resounding in the 21st century.
Some sense of the political tectonic plates chafing in the Balkans of 1877 and the unrest in Russia makes The Turkish Gambit more understandable and more interesting. I was interested in the views about various cultures of the multicultural assemblage of the novel. Nonetheless, I wondered if there had to be quite so many characters, and if the names of the betrothed both had to start with “Va-.” Still, I was thankful that translator Andrew Bromfield went light on the various different ways of referring to the same Russian character that is often a problem for me and for others in reading Russian fiction.
Beyond the three Erast Fandorin Mysteries available in English, there are eight more in Russian and three more planned, plus four contemporary mystery novels featuring Farandon’s grandson Nicholas, and three Sister Pelagia ones set in the early years of the 20th century in provincial Russia, half a dozen novellas about Russian and German spies during World War I, and other books (including rumors of at least one 2007 novel with a different byline that is an anagram of his name). Plus translations of books from Japanese and English. Akunin is the most commercially successful living writer in Russian. Three of his novels have been filmed in Russia.