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Literature / Black City

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Black City is a 2012 novel from Russia by Boris Akunin. It is the 13th novel in the Erast Fandorin detective series.

June, 1914. Three years have passed since the events of previous Fandorin novel All the World's a Stage; Fandorin is now 58 years old. He is in Yalta for a minor errand when he is approached in panic by General Lombadze, the governor. It seems that Tsar Nicholas II is vacationing at his Yalta estate, and a Bolshevik assassin code-named "Odysseus" is in the city, and Odysseus is known to have a sniper rifle. Fandorin and Col. Spiridonov, the commander of the royal bodyguard, go to scout out where they think the sniper's nest might be—and Spiridonov is shot through the head. Fandorin finds a note which indicates that Spiridonov was the actual target.

The trail of Odysseus soon grows cold however, and with absolutely nothing to go on Fandorin packs it up and goes home. Soon, however, a lucky break causes Fandorin to realize that Odysseus has left for Baku in the Transcaucasus, and specifically the "black city" of oil fields outside of Baku. Fandorin and his loyal sidekick Masa set out for Baku immediately.


Complications arise after Fandorin's arrival in the city. First, his estranged wife Eliza is also in town; their marriage quickly went south after a whirlwind romance that took place in All the World's a Stage. Second, someone knows that Fandorin has arrived in Baku, and that someone is trying very hard to kill him. Third, there's another woman in town, a rich oil widow Saadat, who takes a fancy to Fandorin. Fourth, in the background, there's the small matter of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary having been assassinated in Sarajevo.



  • Alcohol Hic: At Artashesov the oil baron's party, Fandorin is buttonholed by Gorsky, a hiccuping drunk who winds up spilling wine all over Fandorin's jacket. This causes him to duck out the side to change, which results in the Meet Cute with Saadat.
  • Artistic License – History: In-Universe. As Senka tells Fandorin the story of his movie The Love of the Caliph, Fandorin points out that two historical characters in the film actually lived 300 years apart. He also notes that the Caliph Harun al-Rashid lived nearly a millennium before the invention of the musket. Senka doesn't care.
  • Avoiding the Great War: Near the end the imperial authorities that have been trying to reach Fandorin throughout the book finally make contact with him. It turns out that Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria has asked for Fandorin personally to conduct the investigation into the murder of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Fandorin investigated a matter for Franz Joseph earlier, and the emperor trusts him. But Fandorin gets shot by Hasim and is unable to go to Sarajevo, and World War I breaks out.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Woodpecker and Hasim succeed in defeating Fandorin and starting the Bolshevik revolution. In fact, as Woodpecker himself tells Fandorin, Fandorin actually made things worse. Woodpecker had planned to destroy Russia's petrol infrastructure to bring about a revolution from within. By defeating the Bolshevik plot, Fandorin has brought about revolution through World War I instead, with millions of deaths to come. Oh, and they shoot Fandorin in the head as well.
  • Bodyguard Betrayal: Hasim, who has been Fandorin's bodyguard and right-hand man throughout the book, is revealed in the end to have been working with the Bolsheviks all along. When Fandorin calls him a traitor, Hasim says he isn't a traitor, because he was never loyal to Fandorin to begin with.
  • Bodyguard Crush: Zafar loves Saadat—he may be a eunuch but he still loves her emotionally. He hopes that one day after she goes through menopause and is no longer looking for sex, he'll be able to take care of her.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Hasim, the cheerful bandit who becomes Fandorin's lancer after Masa is seriously injured.
    " his natural state he resembled a bear, completely overgrown with brownish fur...."
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Khachik and his goons throw Fandorin into an oil well to slowly drown. Hasim swoops in immediately afterwards and saves Fandorin. Subverted in the end when it's revealed that this whole sequence was part of a deliberate plan to get Masa out of the way and put Hasim in his place.
  • Boom Town: Baku, once a sleepy provincial capital of 7,000 people, which has gone through a forty-fold increase in population after the discovery of oil. Corruption, crime, lawlessness, new money—Fandorin thinks of Baku as "a Nouveau Riche city."
  • Call-Forward: Fandorin sees workers working in brutal conditions in an oil field. He ponders how the Russian state has refused to help workers, instead siding squarely with the capitalists, and thinks "All this is bound to end badly."
  • Central Theme: The decline and fall of Tsarist Russia, the central theme throughout the entire series, reaches a climax in this novel. With the coming of the Great War, the tsarist state is doomed.
  • Cliffhanger: The novel ends with Fandorin getting shot in the head. Akunin chose to let this dangle by setting the next novel Planet Water in an earlier time frame, but the publication of final Fandorin novel Not Saying Goodbye revealed that Fandorin does in fact survive.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • Fandorin compares Baku to The Wild West of America, having visited there a quarter-century before. That's the plot of a story "Dream Valley" from Fandorin short story collection Jade Rosary Beads (not translated into English).
    • Senka, the former Street Urchin first introduced in He Lover of Death, makes another appearance. He popped up again in All the World's a Stage as a would-be movie producer now going by "Simon", and in this novel he's producing the movie in Baku that Eliza is acting in. Fandorin is pleased to see him but grows bored with Simon's endless nattering about the movie business.
    • The operative "Woodpecker" is a long-time Bolshevik agent who has had a variety of bird-related code names. He was in The Diamond Chariot as "Thrush", where he deals with the Japanese agent "Captain Rybnikov."
  • Contrived Coincidence: A double agent heard Odysseus make a reference to a rendezvous in "the black city" but Fandorin has no idea at all what that means. He gives up and goes home, only to get a postcard from his wife in Baku, showing the "Black City" of oil fields outside of town. This is the break that Fandorin needed.
  • The Dandy:
    • A hallmark of the Fandorin character. Here he has a "not entirely masculine" habit of inspecting his own appearance before every time he goes out.
    • Fandorin "the inveterate dandy" cringes with shame when he has to walk through the old city of Baku in nothing but Hasim's ragged robe, his clothes having been ruined by his dip in the oil well.
  • Dead Sparks: Fandorin's marriage to Eliza, the actress half his age that he fell in love with in All the World's a Stage. After the initial infatuation had passed, Fandorin realized that they have absolutely nothing in common, and is looking for a way out of the marriage. (He even hopes that she'll cheat on him.)
  • Dirty Communists: The Bolsheviks are the bad guys.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Almost happens with Masa. He's not dead but critically wounded and stays out of the action most of the time.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Fandorin is shot in the head by Hasim at the end of this book. But 11 years before the publication of this book Akunin started a book series starring Fandorin's grandson Nicholas, revealing that Fandorin had a son that was born in 1920.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Fandorin's pursuit of the one-armed assassin at the train station is frustrated when he's blocked by "a long row of tanks." World War I is only days away.
    • Masa, wary of Fandorin's new buddy Hasim, says "What if he is a traitor who will plunge his sword into your back?" That's exactly what happens (not with a sword, though).
    • Near the end it's revealed that Zafar the eunuch has put away quite a lot of money to take care of Saadat should something like a revolution break out. Since a revolution is going to break out, presumably Zafar will take Saadat away to Europe as he planned.
  • Handicapped Badass: Khachik, the Armenian man trying to kill Fandorin in Baku, has only one arm, as Fandorin discovers in the struggle after the assassin nearly cuts Fandorin's throat. He still gets away.
  • Funny Foreigner: Technically Hasim isn't a foreigner as the action is set in Baku and there's a huge Muslim community; if anybody, Fandorin is the foreigner. But since the book is told mostly from Fandorin's POV it plays out as this with Hasim's Boisterous Bruiser ways and broken Russian. Subverted in the end as this turns out to be Obfuscating Stupidity on the part of Hasim.
  • Hassle-Free Hotwire: Fandorin manages to start up a motorboat in thirty seconds without a key.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Fandorin thinks this of himself, having killed Weissmuller unnecessarily, because Weissmuller annoyed him. Granted, Weissmuller had tried to kill him first, but Fandorin had previously disabled the gun. Fandorin considers that nearly forty years of killing folks have made him a "monster".
  • Historical In-Joke:
    • One of Odysseus's known Bolshevik associates is the "Caucasian gunman 'Koba'", whom Fandorin has never heard of. That's Josef Stalin. Stalin was, in real life, involved in robberies and extortion targeted at the oil barons of the Caucasus during this era.
    • Later in the book Artashesov claims that another oil baron by the name of Mukhtarov had his men give Koba "a sound thrashing." This is in reference to a Real Life incident between the real-life Murtuza Mukhtarov and Stalin after the infamous Tiflis bank robbery. The tragic Irony is thick when Artashesov says they left Koba alive "to show that a little insect like him wasn't even worth killing."
  • Info Dump: Fandorin, who loves all things Japanese, is keeping a nikki—basically a stylized Japanese diary. This is a way to deliver a lot of exposition about the town of Baku and the people in it.
  • It Will Never Catch On: After hearing that heir to the Austrian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were murdered by a Serb in Sarajevo, a horrified Fandorin realizes the possibility for events to spin out of control, what with the Austrians looking for revenge and Russia being friends to the Serbs. Then he calms down, thinking "They haven't gone insane," so surely the affair will be resolved with diplomatic notes and a conference.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: Weissmuller pulls a gun on Fandorin and tries to kill him, but fails, Fandorin having disarmed the gun during his first confrontation with Weissmuller the day before. Fandorin promptly kills Weissmuller.
  • Japanese Ranguage: A Running Gag throughout the Fandorin series with his Japanese servant Masa. Upon Fandorin's arrival at home after the fiasco in Yalta, Masa's first words are "Rearry bad?"
  • Mama Bear: Saadat, who insists on coming along for the attempt to rescue her son. Then she beats the hell out of Artashesov for kidnapping her son.
  • Meet Cute: Fandorin ducks around a corner at a party and finds Saadat Validbekova smoking, drinking and without a veil—three things Muslim women aren't supposed to do. He's impressed by her beauty. She tells him she wants to sell her oil business and live a secular life in Europe.
  • The Mole: Hasim, who is Fandorin's bodyguard and lancer throughout the novel, is actually a Bolshevik in league with Woodpecker. He betrays Fandorin in the end and shoots him in the head.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: "Hasim pronounced an obscene Russian word, signifying a woman of immodest behavior, very clearly and precisely."
  • New Old West: Baku, the wild frontier town. It's so lawless that Fandorin, who had some experience with The Wild West in his youth, thinks of it as the "Wild East".
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Hasim spends the whole book speaking broken Russian, acting like a savage peasant—it would be Funny Foreigner except that the book is set in Baku in the Transcaucasus so Hasim isn't a foreigner. Part of The Reveal is that it was all a charade and Hasim actually speaks Russian perfectly.
    Hasim: You thought I was a stupid savage. You looked down on me. I can read and write. I read your diary, I knew all your plans. For a long time I led you around like a dog on a lead....I won. I am cleverer than you.
  • Oddball in the Series: The Bad Guy Wins. This is the first Fandorin novel where that happens. Appropriate, since war and disaster and revolution have finally come.
  • Old Master: Fandorin is 59 years old and he is still kicking ass and taking names.
  • Over-the-Shoulder Carry: How Zafar the loyal eunuch bodyguard whisks Saadat away after she whips out a little gun and starts shooting during the battle with the kidnappers.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: Spiridonov suffers a "neat little black hole" in "the exact center of his own forehead." He's been shot and killed by Odysseus the sniper.
  • The Reveal: At the very end of the novel Hasim is revealed to be one of the bad guys, a Bolshevik operative who has been working for Woodpecker from the beginning. He shoots Fandorin.
  • Shout-Out: Eliza was inspired to leave theater for the cinema after seeing Mary Pickford in a Real Life movie called Friends.
  • Stage Name: In-Universe. Fandorin's wife, the stage actress Eliza Altairsky-Lointaine, adopted the stage name of "Clara Moonlight" (an allusion to Debussy's Claire de Lune) after transitioning to motion pictures. Fandorin is irritated by this, as he's irritated by just about everything involving his wife's acting career.
  • Switching P.O.V.: While the book is told almost entirely from Fandorin's perspective, there are occasional interludes from the POV of Odysseus aka "Woodpecker", the Bolshevik assassin, as well as from Fandorin's new love interest Saadat. (The Winter Queen, the first book in the Fandorin series, remains the only one to be told from Fandorin's POV from beginning to end.)
  • Title Drop: The "black city" is the complex of oil fields that have made the former backwater of Baku a boom town.