This exemplary retro period puzzler, a Russian bestseller, pits two detectives against each other in a race to pick the murderer from a table of first-class passengers aboard a British steamship’s maiden voyage.
Two weeks before the 1878 sailing, that well-known collector Lord Littleby had been beaten to death in his Paris home by a ruthless killer who left no fewer than nine guards, servants, and children of the household dead on the floor below before making off with a golden statuette of Shiva. A clue clutched in Littleby’s hand leads Commissioner Gustave Gauche to book passage on the Leviathan, en route to the mysterious East. On board, he swiftly narrows the list of primary suspects to four. Each of them—a troubled baronet, an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, the pregnant wife of a Swiss banker, and a faded English spinster—is given alternate chapters in which to watch and describe the others, and the results can stand with the most ingenious Golden Age stories, as Papa Gauche and Russian diplomat Erast P. Fandorin (The Winter Queen, not reviewed) match wits to unmask the killer and explode each other’s theories, as they do repeatedly over a mounting body count of avid dilettantes.
The imperial/aristocratic milieu pays homage to Agatha Christie, the fiendlishly clever Chinese-box plotting to Ellery Queen. Akunin’s most distinctive contribution is a tone of dryly amused irony that continues to the last sad line.