To the short but luminous list of fascinating fictional valets and butlers — Jeeves in P.G. Wodehouse’s celebrated series of comic novels, Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day,” Carson in Julian Fellowes’s “Downton Abbey” — we must add a new entry. He is Afanasii Stepanovich Ziukin, the narrator of Boris Akunin’s zesty mystery novel “The Coronation.” As butler to a member of the Russian royal family, Ziukin will be severely tested by the trouble that arises in May 1896, as Czar Nicholas II prepares to take the throne.
That trouble is double. First, a week before the ceremony in Moscow, 4-year-old Mikhail, a nephew of the czar, is kidnapped. Then the kidnappers threaten to kill the boy unless several crown jewels essential to the ceremony are given up as ransom. If it succeeds, the scheme will make the monarchy look so weak and ineffectual as to put its very survival at stake.
As a character, Ziukin performs dual functions. First, he acts as a slow-to-catch-on foil to Detective Erast Fandorin, formerly a state employee and now in private practice; in other words, Ziukin is to Fandorin what Dr. Watson is to you-know-who. Second, in telling the story, Ziukin makes the reader privy to a host of colorful details about the czarist era, for which the author has an unmistakable affinity.
We learn, for instance, that the palace ghost may pinch female commoners and servant girls in the dark of night, but he (or it, if you prefer) wouldn’t dare lay a ghostly digit on the ladies of the royal family. And Ziukin sums up what’s required for waiting on the participants in a top-secret meeting in terms that make Carson of “Downton Abbey” seem like a flibbertigibbet: “meticulous attention, unfailing deftness and — most important of all — total invisibility.”
From time to time, too, Ziukin drops trenchant comments about the foreigners on hand for the coronation, above all the Brits, one of whom goes outside to watch a tennis game after being “attracted by the sound of a bouncing ball, so enchanting to the English ear.”
The mystery is a good one, the villain meets the least-likely-suspect challenge flung down so often by Agatha Christie, and Andrew Bromfield translates Akunin with his customary brio. As a bonus, Ziukin sheds some of his austerity as the plot unfolds — the consummate standoffish observer ends up complaining of being suspected as “a thief and a deceiver, a scoundrel and a state criminal.” Adding poignancy to the story is the doom we know awaits the czar and the rest of his immediate family two decades in the future.
As for Fandorin, the handsome, athletic, extraordinarily clever detective with a slight stutter, he dominates this, the seventh of his adventures to be published in the States, as he always does — with Sherlockian elan.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
By Boris Akunin
Translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Mysterious. 368 pp. $26