Imperturbable Titular Counselor Erast Petrovich Fandorin hunts a traitor who’s undermining Russian efforts against the Ottoman Empire in 1877.
On her way to hunt for her fiancé, cryptographer Pyotr Yablokov, behind the lines on the Bulgarian front, stenographer/telegraphist/nihilist Varvara Suvorova is abandoned by a guide who runs off with her carriage, her passport, and all her money. Luckily, she’s adopted by a cluster of eligible males: London Post correspondent Seamus McLaughlin, Revue Parisienne correspondent Charles Paladin, dashing Cossack commander Major-General Michel Sobolev, Chief of Gendarmes Laventy Mizinov, and Romanian Col. Mikhai Lukan. All of them buzz around her gratifyingly—except for Fandorin. Like Varvara, the sleuthing diplomat has come to the front on an unusual errand: to deliver an order from Tsar Alexander to Mizinov concerning the Russian occupation of Plevna. When someone intercepts the coded message and substitutes Nikopol for Plevna, the Imperial forces occupy the wrong town, subjecting themselves to a damaging attack and Yablokov to suspicion of treason. Varvara, attached as a secretary to Fandorin, naturally hopes to work with him to vindicate her fiancé—but it seems impossible to work with a detective as preternaturally detached from her and everything else as Fandorin.
Solid historical background and a dryly jaundiced view of the rivalries among military heroes and wannabes don’t elevate this period piece or its stock characters to the realm of Fandorin’s remarkable retro puzzler Murder on the Leviathan (2004).