The monks of New Arafat believe the Black Monk that haunts their centuries-old island monastery is responsible for the death of one of their own. When the Black Monk claims more victims--including Bishop Mitrofanii's envoys--Sister Pelagia goes undercover to see exactly what person, or what spirit, is at the bottom of it all.
This quite charming book revolves around the mysterious events in the community of New Ararat; the appearance of a hooded figure has caused some unpleasantness but when the local bishop begins to send his trusted companions one-by-one to investigate, madness and chaos descend.
I think that to explain further would diminish the pleasure of the reader in each new decription but suffice to say the answer isn't mystical but the means to it are intellectual and moral.
Occasionally the translation feels a little clunky and if you get distracted it might be difficult to pick up the thread because it meanders in a way Russian seem particularly good at. Don't expect a fast-pace but do invent stories for the patients at the clinic.
I was pleased by the way the author tied up the little snippets given to the reader throughout even when they were 'red herrings' which to me is the sign of a good mystery writer, and I also liked the touch that it wasn't solved by one person alone but for their bumbling side-kick and instead gently guided the reader to its conclusion.
The Black Monk picks up, literally, where Akunin's first Sister Pelagia book ended. Thus, first things first, no one should read this book without having read Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog: A Mystery.
A frightened monk roars into town proclaiming that Saint Basilisk has returned to a provincial religious retreat and is haunting the town. The religious retreat consists of two islands: on the smaller island is St. Basilisk's Hermitage now inhabited only by three hermits; on the larger island, an ambitious abbot (archimandrite) has turned the monastery into a thriving spiritual tourist attraction. Mitrofanii dispatches one investigator after another, but each meets with some ill turn or another. Inevitably, Pelagia goes to the island in her disguise as a Muscovite lady.
With The Black Monk, Akunin has moved beyond the realm of genre or pulp fiction and into literature on a plane with Umberto Eco (one of his influences). But don't worry! Akunin still sets us a good mystery - or two or three - and combines that with compelling psychological studies of his characters' motivations and compulsions and a clash of mysticism with science - not to mention some funny if implicit commentary on commercialism in modern Russia.
Akunin works under the spell of Dostoevsky and Chekov to name only two. Indeed, the book's title comes from a Chekov short story of the same name (See Chekhov, The Selected Stories of). One of Akunin's characters is reading Dostoevsky's The Possessed (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) (Barnes & Noble Classics) (also known as The Devils) and lends it another character, an actor who fully absorbs himself into his roles and who also happens to be an inmate at the open air psychiatric clinic on the island! What could possibly go wrong?
This was an eerie, exciting and slightly disturbing read. I love the sense of history you get from Akunin's work, and this book is no exception.
If you enjoyed reading Micheal Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," you will certainly enjoy "Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk."