"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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
I appreciated the Dramatis Personae in the front of the book and used it often.
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.
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.