Special Assignments by Boris Akunin

Special Assignments by Boris Akunin.  I started reading this Russian author a couple of years ago and eagerly await any translation that my library decides to order.  Special Assignments is actually a pair of novellas chronicling two cases of Erast Fandorin, deputy for special assignments to His Excellency the Governor-General of Moscow in 1886.  In the first, we are introduced to the Jack of Spades, a con man with a sense of humor, a nimble mind, and a colossal ego.  He has traveled around the country executing elaborate swindles with the assistance of his beautiful paramour, Mimi.  When one of his activities embarrasses the Governor-General himself, Fandorin is asked to investigate and readers are entertained by the ensuing battle of wits between two evenly matched combatants.  At times Fandorin holds the upper hand, only to see his efforts thwarted by this devious trickster.  This first story also introduces Anisii Tulipov, a lowly courier in the police force, in whom Fandorin sees some potential and so has reassigned as his personal assistant. 

In the second case, Akunin argues that London’s Jack the Ripper is actually Russian and has now returned to Moscow to continue killing prostitutes there.  Fandorin, again with Tulipov’s assistance, quickly narrows the list of suspects down to a small number, but the monster continues to be one step ahead of them until the very end.  This is a much darker and violent story than the one that precedes it and with a more complex solution.

In each case readers are privy to the inner workings of both Fandorin’s mind and that of the criminal.  The contrasts and similarities are quite interesting to observe.   Akunin’s detailed description of the Moscow scenery and its people add value to the stories, but the heart of each is the cat-and-mouse battle between Fandorin and his criminal opponent.

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