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Mystery charms with misdirection

The Turkish Gambit, By Boris Akunin, Random House, 224 pp, $22.95

Varvara Suvorova knows that she's the ultimate modern woman. Smart, brave, resourceful, and (she can't help but notice) extremely attractive to men, Suvorova -- better known as Varya -- refuses to be limited by her male-dominated upper-class world. Therefore, when she decides to join her fiancé, an army cryptographer, at the front, she sets out to do so without a qualm. Only, it's 1877, the war zone between Russia and the Ottoman Empire isn't as peaceful as newspaper reports have led everyone to believe, and even a very modern woman like Varya may find herself in deep water -- first when a traitorous Bulgarian driver deserts her, then when the ferocious Bashi-Bazouks attack, and later, when her fiancé is accused of high treason.

In ''The Turkish Gambit," Varya would like to think that she could have gotten herself out of any of these messes. It certainly is not satisfying to know that her savior, time after time, is a bloodless, blue-eyed young diplomat with prematurely white hair. What's even more galling is that he seems to be the only man around unwilling to join her queue of admirers. When she learns that he's a spy, her opinion of him drops further: ''Why . . . you're nothing but . . . a lackey of the throne!" Varya, a freethinking liberal, cannot imagine anyone lower: ''A servile, loyal subject with no mind or conscience of his own!"

But the young diplomat is not only unfazed by her criticism, he remains consistently available to bail her out, whether she wants his help or not. He is, as fans of Boris Akunin's earlier books will doubtless have realized, Erast Fandorin. And if readers do not know of the appalling heartbreak he suffered in his first fictional outing, ''The Winter Queen" (the adventure that has inured him to romance and turned his hair snow white), they will still smile as he resists the perhaps too-obvious allure of the silly if goodhearted Varya.

Although he's too much of a gentleman to abandon a lady in distress, Fandorin, readers will quickly realize (even if Varya does not), has much bigger issues to resolve. For starters, he's not that committed to this war. He paid his dues to the government in full in ''The Winter Queen," which takes place the year before, and has no desire to get involved in what he sees as an unwinnable conflict. Once he is drawn in, however, he quickly sees that if treachery is involved, it's on a much larger scale than the minor crime for which Varya's fiancé has been imprisoned. And although the young diplomat -- whose intelligence Varya only slowly begins to guess at -- has deep suspicions about what (or who) is afoot, he must wrestle with both the international press corps and the bureaucracy of the entire Russian Army.

Like its predecessors, ''The Winter Queen" and ''Murder on the Leviathan," this sophisticated mystery is a marvel of misdirection. Akunin (the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, an academic and literary critic from Georgia) floods his readers with characters and subplots, including the adventures of the feckless Varya, that prove as entertaining as the main case. Although it has only just been translated (again by Andrew Bromfield), this was originally the second in the series -- falling between ''Queen" and ''Leviathan." As such, it was the first to largely hide Fandorin himself from the reader (a device used in ''Leviathan"), revealing him primarily through the observations of the vain Varya. While Fandorin is much more of a traditional protagonist in ''The Winter Queen," he's more in the shadows in his subsequent adventures -- not quite understood, or appreciated, until very late in the game.

What that game is can be slow to unravel. Akunin is something of a showoff. He reportedly started writing mysteries to give his whodunit-addicted wife something of quality to read, and the results tend toward homages to the few greats he respects. ''The Winter Queen,' for example, reads like a Russian Arthur Conan Doyle, while ''Leviathan" one-ups Agatha Christie's ''Murder on the Orient Express" and its ilk, all in the Imperial Russia of the late 19th century.

''The Turkish Gambit," in its turn, takes on international thrillers while holding on to the historical setting. In order to make sense of the ongoing war, Akunin has to spend considerable time on background. He does so in entertaining asides -- letters and stories told in the press tent-cum-gambling den-and-bar -- but it does mean that the main plot can move slowly. Because of this background and because often we lack direct access to Fandorin, ''The Turkish Gambit" bogs down at times under its own weight. Unlike the slam-bang events of ''The Winter Queen," which left this reader breathless, ''The Turkish Gambit" is a slower and more cynical book. However, that dark Slavic view of the world translates very well to current international events, and when we do see Fandorin, we cannot help but admire him. Like the foolish but engaging Varya, we have put ourselves in the way of a series of adventures, and if we don't see how they will end until they do, we have only our own preconceptions to blame.

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