Sister Pelagia and the white bulldog : a novel

by B. Akunin

Paperback, 2007




New York : Random House Trade Paperbacks, c2007.


"In a remote Russian province in the late nineteenth century, Bishop Mitrofanii is entangled in a family crisis. After learning that one of his great aunt's beloved and rare white bulldogs has been poisoned, the Orthodox prelate knows there is only one detective clever enough to investigate the murder: Sister Pelagia." "The bespectacled, freckled nun is lively, curious, extraordinarily clumsy, and persistent. In search of a killer, Pelagia finds a whole host of suspects, any one of whom might have benefited if the old lady (who changes her will at whim) had expired of grief at the pooch's demise. There's Pyotr, the matron's grandson, a nihilist with a grudge who has fallen for the maid; Stepan, the penniless caretaker, who has sacrificed his youth to the care of the estate; Miss Wrigley, a mysterious Englishwoman who has recently been named sole heiress to the fortune; Poggio, an opportunistic and freeloading "artistic" photographer; and, most intriguing, Naina, the old lady's granddaughter, a girl so beautiful she could drive any man to do almost anything." "As Pelagia bumbles and intuits her way to the heart of a mystery among people with faith only in greed and desire, she must bear in mind the words of Saint Paul: "Beware of dogs - and beware of evil-doers.""--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member cbl_tn
In Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, Boris Akunin introduces a new detective, an Orthodox nun. Like Akunin's Erast Fandorin series, this book takes place in 19th century Russia. Its setting is the province of Zavolzhie, a place apparently viewed as a provincial backwater by the rest of the country. It is a good place to live thanks to the influence of Bishop Mitrofanii and his ability to persuade the local political leaders to govern according to moral principles.

When Bishop Mitrofanii receives a letter from his aunt begging for his assistance in solving the poisoning of two of her beloved rare white bulldogs, he sends Sister Pelagia to investigate the domestic mystery. The setting is reminiscent of an English country house murder. The aunt is a very wealthy woman, who regularly changes her will based on her pleasure or displeasure with members of her household. The suspects include her grandson, granddaughter, the English former governess (and heir in the current will), the estate manager, an artist/photographer, and a neighbor. As a result of her investigation, Sister Pelagia uncovers secrets with a much broader reach, with the potential to affect the entire province.

I had a difficult time getting into this book, and it took me a long time to read it. I kept feeling like I was missing something in the first chapter, as it seemed to refer to previous investigations conducted by Sister Pelagia and the Bishop. Sometimes the characters are referred to by their first names and patronymics, and other times they are referred to by their surnames. I had a hard time keeping track of who was who, and exactly how many characters were a part of activities and conversations. I didn't enjoy this first series entry nearly as much as any of the Erast Fandorin novels.
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LibraryThing member Prop2gether
Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog by Boris Akunin was a shelf replacement for one of the Erast Fandorin mysteries, and is another series of mysteries solved, in this case by a nun with a strong sense of self and an alter ego which her bishop allows her to use for solving crimes. There were sections which were very tedious about the politics of the time, but, in fairness, Akunin tells the reader upfront that fact—this chapter is about politics and not the mystery and can be skipped if the reader wishes to do so. Of course, then you may miss some of the implications of the resolution, but skipping the chapters will not diminish the fun of following Sister Pelagia around. The white bulldog of the title is really out of the picture about half-way through, but the murders go on to resolution. Sister Pelagia grew more interesting as the novel progressed, but it is a very slow read.… (more)
LibraryThing member gbill
I was less enamored with Sister Pelagia and (at least based on this book) would recommend sticking to Erast Fandorin for your Akunin fix. I liked the character of the good sister who was “not a nun, but a walking disaster with freckles”, and who was the real brain behind the mystery solving of Reverend Mitrofanii, but the plot seemed a little muddled to me. There were contrived events, such as Pelagia losing her glasses but feeling “no urge to go back for them” to handicap her before a chase scene, as well as the somewhat inevitable plot twists at the end, but I suppose this is part of the fun of this kind of book.

The bigger issue was in the book’s lack of focus; it seemed to want editing. There are more references to modern Russian life and Putin veiled in this story than others which in one sense made it interesting, but when Akunin interjects with “The Conversations of his Grace Mitrofanii” and says it is “permissible to omit this brief section completely”, my advice would be to take him up on it. :P It was a mistake to go 23 pages without seeing Pelagia at this point in the novel. Your mileage may vary of course!

On genius, and finding one’s calling:
“’I think that there is genius hidden in everyone, a little hole through which God is visible,’ Pelagia began to explain. ‘But it is rare for anyone to discover this opening in themselves. Everybody gropes for it like blind kittens, but they keep missing. If a miracle occurs, then someone realizes straightaway that this is what he came into the world for, and after that he lives with a calm confidence and cannot be distracted by anybody else, and that is genius. But talents are encountered far more frequently. They are people who have not found that little magic window, but are close to it and are nourished by the reflected glow of its miraculous light.”

On good and evil in man:
“People are different, there are good ones and bad ones, His Grace taught him, but for the most part they are neither one thing nor the other, like frogs that taken on the temperature of the air around them. If it was warm, they were warm. If it was cold, they were cold.”
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LibraryThing member orchid_circle
Being sworn fan of Akunin I had picked this one with great expectations.
I thought it would be just as thrilling, fun and interesting as every single novel from the Fandorin series.
Far from it.
I just couldn't make myself like Sister Pelagia.
There is , however, still good old Fandorin style plot. so while I find the protagonist hardly convincing the overall impression of the book is not bad.
Still, I was used to something spectacular and here I was presented with a nice novel. Hence my disappointment.
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LibraryThing member bsquaredinoz
Pelagia & the White Bulldog is the first novel of a series set in late 19th century Russia and introduces Sister Pelagia: “a fidgety, curious woman, undignified in her movements and not cut out to be a nun.” She is tasked by the Bishop of Zavolzhie to investigate a situation which is vexing his Aunt who claims that someone has tried to poison the last remaining examples of the the white bulldogs with brown ears that her husband had especially bred before his death. That is really all I can tell you about the plot without delving into action that does not take place until the half-way point of the novel. Although I suppose it is not spoiling things too much to add that there is a second (eventually intertwined) storyline relating to the appointment of Vladimir Lvovich Bubenstov as a representative of the Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod to investigate religious improprieties in the town.

I have to admit to struggling with this book and in some ways I shouldn’t have been surprised. One of the reasons I stopped a formal study of literature during my University days was that I couldn’t face reading what I came to think of as ‘another bloody Russian’ that the syllabus seemed to be full of. I don’t know if it is the original writing or the way the language is translated into English but the one thing the Russian fiction of my acquaintance has in common is an unwillingness to use 10 words when 200 (or 2000) are available. I found the flowery, long-winded prose of Tolstoy and Dostoyesvky dread-inducing all those years ago but I thought perhaps a less ‘worthy’, more recent title might be different. Alas I did not find it so. Amidst the interminably lengthy descriptions of nothing much at all there is a story, of sorts, here but not one that kept me particularly engaged (and not one that couldn’t have been told in one-third the word count). I teased out some interesting observations about the politics of the day but as a mystery the book left a lot to be desired in that the culprit for the crimes that were eventually described was obvious almost from the outset and the way in which Pelagia deduced the answer bordered on the inane.

I didn’t find the characters particularly enjoyable either. I thought I would like Pelagia’s quirkiness but she soon turned into a kind of reject from a Carry On movie what with knocking over fruit bowls and spilling tea in men’s crotches and whatnot. Slapstick has never been my humour of choice. The rest of the characters were all pretty formulaic for the intimate melodrama the book turned into, though the way Bubenstov hid is evilness was the most entertaining thing about the book for me.

I know there are readers who don’t share my admiration for brevity and conciseness and more who simply enjoy the kind of writing that Akunin has produced here. I am probably the poorer for not being able to appreciate this particular style but it can’t be helped. For me the hints of wry humour and mildly interesting plot were lost in the flowery, tangent-riddled prose that made me want to poke my own eyes out with one of the knitting needles that Pelagia carried everywhere.
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LibraryThing member SofiaAndersson
It's like Akunin's books about Erast Fandorin, but a with a crimesolving nun instead of a government offical. Amusig, but sometimes tedious when the plot gets lost i all the details.
LibraryThing member dougwood57
Four and a half stars. Boris Akunin has set off a new path with 'Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog'. (It appears that Erast Fandorin is a creature of the past. Akunin states that Fandorin had grown tired for him.) It is essential to start reading this series with this, the first book, as it introduces characters you will meet again in the Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk: A Novel (Mortalis).

The eponymous Pelagia is a nun in a late 19th century provincial Russian capital, but it is her detective work on behalf of Bishop Mitrofanii that interest Akunin's fans. Akunin weave a good mystery while introducing fascinating characters. Someone appears to be bumping off the beloved white bulldogs owned by the bishop's widowed and elderly and rich aunt - in an effort to push her into an early grave?

Pelagia is dispatched to get to the bottom of things. There's no shortage of suspects: the nihilist grandson, the devoted caretaker, an Englishwoman (recently named sole heiress), an "artistic" photographer, and the beautiful granddaughter. The imperial prosecutor is a nasty piece of work as well.

No mere mystery, Akunin delivers psychological profiles and a study of life in the Russian countryside in the tradition of Anton Chekov. Akunin also apparently includes references to contemporary Russian society that may make the book even more enjoyable to others more versed in the topic.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member SUS456
This is a charming mystery by Akunin. If you like Russian authors and a 19th century setting you should read this book.
LibraryThing member louis69
I did enjoy this in a weird way. I found it an interesting commentary on present-day Russia as perceived from the outside e.g. the position of the Church. The ability of Sister Pelagia to change from being a nun to being Mrs Lisitsina was rather far-fetched as also was the chase through the night and escape from the raging torrent right near the garden of Drozdovka.
I appreciated the Dramatis Personae in the front of the book and used it often.
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LibraryThing member Lindoula
I liked this but I wouldn't place it among my favorite mysteries. It's scant on evidence and long on speculation, which is really the opposite of what I prefer. Still, there are some very good character studies in it. I'll probably read the next one, though, because the narrator's voice bothered me a lot after a while.
LibraryThing member Marse
Pelagia is Boris Akunin's female counterpart to Erast Fandorin, his wonderful, 19th century detective. Pelagia is a nun, a seemingly self-effacing, plain, unobtrusive young woman who is sent to unravel the goings-on at the Bishop's aunt's estate where her prize white bulldogs are being killed off. It is a completely different milieu than in the Fandorin books -- it is not the urbane, cosmopolitan world of St. Petersburg or international settings, it is the backwaters of Russia -- where grand estates exist next to schismatic enclaves and superstitious peasant villages. The book is enjoyable, and as the first in a series, Pelagia an interesting personality, though overall I preferred the first Fandorin story more.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookczuk
Okay, so there are several things going on in this book, but it took me a little combing through the Russian history and long names, to get to them. You've got a mystery set in Tsarist Russia of the 1870s with a nun as heroine. Not your typical mystery series. She's not Brother CAdfael, but she's darn clever, and knits, to boot.

Sister Pelagia is sent by her Bishop to sort out a problem his great aunt is having. It seems the white bulldogs (with one brown ear) she is trying to establish as a breed are being killed, and she is distraught. (Never mind that she seems to like the bulldogs more than her family, and with good cause, I might add.)

To this is added a political mystery, which forces Sister Pelagia and her knitting needles to go under cover to get to the root of the matter, which she does.

I got occasionally lost while reading this, mostly because I'd read before bed, and would fall asleep, then have to sort out the next evening not only who was who again, but what I'd actually read already. But this was a problem of my own, not caused by the writing.
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