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Literature / The Death of Achilles

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The Death of Achilles is a 1998 Russian novel by Boris Akunin. It is the fourth of fourteen novels in the Erast Fandorin mystery series.

The book is set in 1882, four years after the events of previous novel Murder on the Leviathan. Fandorin has returned to Moscow from four years of diplomatic service in Japan with a new affinity for Japanese culture and a Japanese servant, Masa. He goes to work for the governor of Moscow, Prince Dolgorukoi, and is immediately tasked with investigating the death of General Mikhail Sobolev. Sobolev, the hugely popular victor of the Russo-Turkish War and Fandorin's old friend from novel #2, The Turkish Gambit, dies in a Moscow hotel on the same day Fandorin arrives in town. The death is believed to be a heart attack, but Fandorin discovers that Sobolev actually died in the arms of a lover and his bodyguards are covering it up. Fandorin, however, suspects murder.

Of course, he is right. The killer is Achimas Welde, a professional assassin with a long history of murders behind him, who was hired to dispose of Sobolev. And he's a figure from Fandorin's past, as he tried and failed to kill Fandorin—but did kill his wife—in the first Fandorin novel, The Winter Queen. As Fandorin's investigation closes in on the truth, the two head for a fatal confrontation.

Fandorin's sojourn in Japan, skipped over between the previous novel and this one, is the subject of Fandorin novel #10, The Diamond Chariot.


  • Assassins Are Always Betrayed: Doubly subverted: Achimas thinks his contractor betrayed him (as he expected from the start) but it turns out that it was just his liaison who tried pocketing Achimas' payment. His contractor lets Achimas kill the liaison and thanks him for a well-done job.
  • Bad Guy Bar: The Hard Labor Tavern, where the bandits of Moscow gather at night, and where Fandorin goes in search of Little Misha. There's a rotting corpse in the basement.
  • Black-and-White Morality: Lampshaded and averted. The brief Part III, in which Fandorin and Welde have their confrontation and the POV flips back and forth, is titled "White and Black". Yet as the latter parts of Achimas's narrative have shown, he is by no means all "black".
  • The Book Cipher: Used by the German spy, Knabe.
  • The Bus Came Back: The white-eyed assassin from The Winter Queen returns, is given a name, and becomes the main villain.
  • Call-Forward: Achimas muses how Out with a Bang would be acceptable for a French leader but dishonorable for a Russian one. Fast-forward 17 years later, to the death of French president Félix Faure...
  • The Chanteuse: Wanda's other job, when she isn't hooking.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Duke of Lichtenberg's Elmer Fudd Syndrome (see below) appears to be a random gag when he pops up in Fandorin's half of the narrative. But in the Achimas half of the book it reveals the Duke to be one of the conspirators in the Sobolev murder plot.
  • Culture Clash: Between Anabaptist German refugees and Muslim Chechen natives.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: One of Achimas' earlier contracts promised him a million francs if he managed to save a Spoiled Brat from the noose. The case is clear-cut, with several bodies of little girls murdered in a Nightmare Fuel fashion found in the guy's basement. Achimas manages to arrange for the blame to be shifted onto the guy who reported the bodies, who, suspiciously, is nowhere to be found (of course he isn't — Achimas is no Spoiled Brat, and therefore isn't sloppy with hiding corpses).
  • Deuteragonist: Achimas Welde, who is effectively the Villain Protagonist of the second half of the book.
  • Don't Create a Martyr: The whole point of Achimas's scheme to murder Sobolev—the government not only wants him dead, but wants him dead in an embarrassing way so his memory can't be used against a government.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Only if one processes all the allusions to the mythical Achilles, who in this novel is Achimas. So the title refers both to the death of Sobolev, called "the Russian Achilles"note , and of Achimas.
  • Dragon Their Feet: Achimas Welde, the anonymous assassin of the first novel, escapes Fandorin and returns three books later as the Big Bad.
  • Elmer Fudd Syndrome: The Duke of Lichtenberg, Sobolev's brother-in-law, speaks like this, calling Sobolev's death a "tewwible calamity." This turns out to be surprisingly plot relevant; see Chekhov's Gun above.
  • Expy: "Michel Sobolev" is a transparently obvious stand-in for the Real Life Mikhail Skobelev, who was in fact a Russian general and did in fact die suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1882 at the age of 38.
  • Government Conspiracy: The clients behind General Sobolev's murder, who thus prevented him from starting a coup d'état.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Wanda, the deluxe prostitute whom Sobolev is visiting at the time of his death.
  • Historical In-Joke: Wondering how the real-like Mikhail Skobelev died in 1882? Well, just maybe it was an elaborate murder plot.
  • Iconic Sequel Character: Masa, Fandorin's loyal Japanese manservant and right-hand man, makes his debut in this book, and will be Fandorin's Lancer for the rest of the series.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: All the chapter titles of Fandorin's half of the story, as is the case with most Fandorin novels, Akunin deliberately evoking old-style prose. Averted with Achimas's story, which has a darker tone.
  • I Owe You My Life: It's explained that Masa is now Fandorin's manservant because Fandorin saved his life in Japan. (As noted above, this and other stuff from Fandorin's time in Japan is explored in The Diamond Chariot.)
  • Mail-Order Bride: Achimas puts a weird spin on this when he gets time-limited Mail Order Brides, marrying them and then sending them on their way when the service contract expires.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Barkeeping: Even in a place as sleazy as the Hard Labor Inn. "...the innkeeper was answering reluctantly, in monosyllables, as he slowly wiped a glass tumbler with a dirty rag."
  • One Last Job: Achimas decides to take the Sobolev job because it will allow him to retire and buy a private island.
  • Out with a Bang: Invoked and Exploited with Achimas' intricate murder of General Sobolev. Welde gets Sobolev to ingest a rare poison that only kills the victim when their heart exceeds a certain rate. Then he arranges a night of sex between Sobolev and Wanda the hooker, to get Sobolev's heart rate up.
  • Perspective Flip: The first half of the book is Fandorin's investigation. The second half is Achimas's life story. The Perspective Flip comes when Achimas's story catches up to 1882 and recounts how he tries to evade capture by Fandorin.
  • Posthumous Character: Sobolev is already dead within the first pages, but his plot against the government and the government's plot against him is the central story of the book.
  • Professional Killer: Achimas Welde makes an excellent living.
  • Racial Face Blindness: Inverted when Fandorin, frustrated at the Japanese Masa's vague description of the suspect, says "We all l-look alike to him."
  • Self-Poisoning Gambit: Achimas at one point recalls doing this at one point in order to kill one of his targets, a rich, old, industrialist. The poison in question only became lethal when combined with a racing heartbeat, so the two drank poisoned wine together and then Achimas told the industrialist that the man's nephew was trying to kill him. Sure enough the industrialist died on the spot, while Achimas spent a while moving very slowly and carefully until the poison broke down and became harmless.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Achimas's whole story is an extended Shout Out to the mythological Achilles. Their names are similar, they both hid out dressed as girls when they were young, they both killed a famous general, they both were shot in the leg by an arrow, etc. The Other Wiki goes into great detail here.
    • Several phrases and mannerisms used by Achimas Welde in Death of Achilles are taken almost verbatim from Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal.
  • Sleeping Dummy: How Welde gets the drop on Fandorin when Fandorin enters the room.
  • Soft Glass: Fandorin goes crashing through a glass window. Doesn't get a scratch. Of course, he was Born Lucky.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: A trademark of the Fandorin series. In this one General Sobolev, a key character in The Turkish Gambit (Fandorin #2) dies in the first chapter. Also, Xavier Grushin, Fandorin's old mentor from The Winter Queen (Fandorin #1), retired from the police force, is recruited by Fandorin to help in the investigation—and he also gets killed.
  • Switching P.O.V.:
    • Divided into two parts. The first part is Fandorin's investigation (using Fandorin as the POV character, for the first time since The Winter Queen). The second part is from Achimas's (the villain's) POV, in which we learn his life story and then go through the events of the first part from his POV. Then there's a climactic chapter that switches back and forth between Fandorin and Achimas's POV as they have their confrontation.
    • Fandorin's story also has a couple of digressions in which it briefly wanders out of Fandorin's POV and into that of his old boss Grushin or police chief Evgeny Karachentsev.
  • Thieves' Cant: Little Misha and all the other criminals at the Hard Labor Tavern practice this. Achimas is mystified when they refer to a recently deceased fellow thief as a "smooth operator".
  • Whole Episode Flashback: Used in Part II, in which the life history and criminal career of the antagonist is recounted. This may be a nod to Sherlock Holmes novels, which often used this trope.note 
  • Worthy Opponent: Achimas's thoughts as he sees Fandorin approach his door.
    "He liked the face—it was energetic and intelligent. A worthy opponent. He had only been unlucky with his allies."
  • Writing Indentation Clue: Fandorin figures out Achimas's address by tracing the indentation in a notepad he found on the scene.