Excerpt from The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Winter Queen

A Novel

By Boris Akunin

The Winter Queen
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  • Hardcover: May 2003,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2004,
    264 pages.

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Then something utterly fantastic happened.

"Ah! So I am rejected!" the young man squealed in counterfeit despair, covering his eyes theatrically with one hand and swiftly extracting from his inside pocket a small revolver of gleaming black steel. "What meaning has life for me after this? A single word from you and I live. A single word from you and I die where I stand!" he appealed to the young girl, who was sitting there herself more dead than alive. "You say nothing? Then farewell!"

The sight of a gentleman gesticulating with a gun could not fail to attract the attention of the promenading public. Several of those who happened to be close at hand—a stout lady holding a fan, a pompous gentleman with a cross of the Order of St. Anne hanging around his neck, two girls from boarding school in identical brown frocks with pelerines—froze on the spot, and some student or other even halted on the pavement on the far side of the railings. In short, there was reason to hope that the scandalous incident would rapidly be brought to a close.

What followed, however, occurred too rapidly for anyone to intervene.

"Here's to luck!" cried the drunk—or, perhaps, the madman. Then he raised the hand holding the revolver high above his head, spun the cylinder, and set the muzzle to his temple.

"You clown! You motley buvfoon!" whispered the valiant German matron, demonstrating a quite respectable knowledge of colloquial Russian.

The young man's face, already pale, turned gray and green by turns. He bit his lower lip and squeezed his eyes tight shut. The girl closed her eyes, too, just to be on the safe side.

It was as well she did so, for it spared her a horrendous sight. When the shot rang out, the suicide's head was instantly jerked to one side and a thin fountain of red and white matter spurted from the exit wound just below his left ear.

The ensuing scene defies description. The German matron gazed around her indignantly as if calling on everyone to witness this unimaginable outrage, and then set up a bloodcurdling squealing, adding her voice to the screeching of the schoolgirls and the stout lady, who had been emitting piercing shrieks for several seconds. The young girl lay there in a dead swoon. She had half opened her eyes for barely an instant before immediately going limp. People came running up from every side, but it was all too much for the delicate nerves of the student who had been standing beyond the railings, and he took to his heels, fleeing across the roadway in the direction of Mokhovaya Street.

Xavier Feofilaktovich Grushin, detective superintendent of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Police, sighed in relief as he set aside the summary report on the previous day's serious crimes, adding it to the Out pile on his left. During the previous twenty-four hours nothing of any note that required the intervention of the Division had occurred in any of the twenty-four police precincts in this city of 600,000 inhabitants: there was one murder resulting from a drunken brawl between factory hands (the murderer was apprehended at the scene), two cabdrivers had been robbed (the local stations could take care of those), and 7,853 rubles had gone missing from the till at the Russo-Asian Bank (that was a matter for Anton Semyonovich at the commercial fraud department). Thank God they'd stopped sending Grushin's department all those petty incidents of pickpocketing and maids who hanged themselves and abandoned infants; nowadays those all went into the Police Municipal Incidents Report that was distributed to the departments in the afternoons.

Xavier Grushin yawned comfortably and glanced over the top of his tortoiseshell pince-nez at Erast Petrovich Fandorin, clerk and civil servant fourteenth class, who was writing out the weekly report to His Excellency the chief of police for the third time. Never mind, thought Grushin. Let him get into neat habits early; he'll be grateful for it later. The very idea of it—scraping away with a steel nib on a report for the top brass. Oh, no, my friend, you just take your time and do it the good old-fashioned way with a goose quill, with all the curlicues and flourishes. His Excellency was raised in Emperor Nicholas I's day; he knows all about good order and respect for superiors.

Excerpted from The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin Copyright© 2003 by Boris Akunin. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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