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Akunin delights again with 'Achilles' whodunit

The Death of Achilles
By Boris Akunin, translated by Andrew Bromfield
Random House, 336 pp, $12.95

Erast Fandorin is back, and not a moment too soon. His old friend General Michel Sobolev, lion of the Russian army, ''Achilles" to the Russian people, is found dead in his suite at the hotel Dusseaux in Moscow soon after Fandorin checks into the same establishment. There is no evidence of foul play. On the other hand, he was in robust health. Hmm.

We meet Fandorin as he descends from a train, foppish in white spats with silver studs, and heads for the Dusseaux -- Dostoevski and Count Tolstoy have stayed there -- and prepares for his new job as deputy to the aging governor-general of Moscow, Prince Dolgoruki, for special assignments.

Almost immediately, Fandorin learns that Sobolev died during the night. The word is soon out and rocks the empire. Fandorin persuades Dolgoruki that the death is no mere heart attack, as the medical examiner has concluded. Dolgoruki reviews the impressive file on this handsome young man with a charming stutter, replete with awards for service from the tsar's court, and decides to let him discreetly investigate. Fandorin's instincts, as usual, are on the money. We're talking murder here, with a delicious coverup reaching into the thin political air of St. Petersburg.

To be at the top of his game, Fandorin takes ice baths and walks on the walls of his hotel room with Masa, the loyal, rather quirky Japanese servant he acquired during his recent stint in Japan, where he learned the language and acquitted himself well in secret missions for the Russian government. He meditates and claps his hands eight times to clear his head, causing a commotion whenever he does so. The Russians, no strangers to weird behavior themselves, are dumbfounded.

In ''The Death of Achilles," Boris Akunin delights us for the fourth time with the exploits of Fandorin, the cultured, sublime sleuth. Akunin, the pen name for the Georgian writer Grigory Chkhartishvili, is by now an international cult figure, and for good reason. His books are addictive. (He has sold 11 million of them.) His plotting is devilish and his characters, good and evil, are penetrating. His literary romps brim with a robust sense of fun, and his central creation is an effervescent joy.

Fandorin, for his part, shines with his febrile mind and sinuous languor. He reminds us of Rupert Everett's fabulous, effete Sherlock Holmes on ''Masterpiece Theater," minus the penchant for drugs. Best of all, he lives in the heady days of late-19th-century tsarist Russia -- a vertiginous time of champagne, mistresses, world-class gossip, and bear baiting -- as the empire slides toward disaster. This period may lack the dark depths of John Le Carre's Soviet Union, but it's a hoot.

Fandorin follows the trail from the boudoir of a popular singer, a demimondaine named Wanda, to the city's most vicious slums. He confronts lethal duplicity from officials pledged to help him and fights duels with officers of Sobolev's staff bent on stopping him from uncovering what they think is the truth.

Meanwhile, a German agent surfaces and proceeds to act with malice aforethought. He is a mere gnat, though, compared with a brilliant professional killer who arrives in Moscow and becomes Fandorin's nemesis. As the book spins toward its denouement, Akunin does a grand job presenting the back story of the death of Achilles involving all of these characters. I can say no more. Fandorin demands discretion.

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