I’m a big fan of Akunin’s Erast Fandorin mysteries, so I was very interested to check out his other series, once again set in the 19th century Russia and featuring Pelagia, a ginger-haired, bespectacled young nun who lives in a small town of Zavolzhsk. The novel opens as Pelagia’s superior, the Bishop of Zavolzhsk, has his sleep disturbed by two matters: one, the arrival of a church official from St Petersburg who looks set to rock the quiet, ordered life of his beloved town, and two, the mysterious poisoning of two rare white bulldogs belonging to his cranky, dog-mad aunt. Knowing Pelagia’s sharp wits and a knack for solving mysteries (which the broader society attributes to him), he despatches her to his aunt’s house. On her way, she encounters yet another grisly mystery when two headless bodies are fished out of the river close to the estate. Are the two mysteries connected? Is Pope Catholic? Do white bulldogs crap in the garden?
As a detective story, I didn’t think that it was one of Akunin’s best. There are some twists and turns and unpredictable events, but the plot feels a bit disjointed and it also does that annoying thing where it dangles a character in front of you who’s so obviously a rotten egg you know that he’s not really going to turn out to be the murderer too. The book’s real strength is the care the author takes in conjuring up the provincial setting of Zavolzhsk and the people who inhabit it. There are lengthy introductions for the minor and major characters and the Dramatis Personae list at the front of the book can be helpful because there are so many of them to keep track of. The author also goes off on tangents in places where the main plot is interrupted by philosophical discussions on the society, ruling and human nature, which the narrator cheekily offers to skip if one wishes to. Plus the book is full of interesting historical details and comical and quirky elements, and Akunin’s writing is just delightful (Andrew Bromfield, who translated the Fandorin series, also does a wonderful job here; I never once thought to myself, I wish I was reading this in Russian instead).
Pelagia is an appealing character, resourceful, smart, simultaneously shy and bold, but curiously she’s also the character we know the least about, and she’s not actually as dominant in the book as the title might suggest. The novel hints on some great personal tragedy which had led her to become a nun, but this is something that’s clearly meant to be revealed slowly throughout the series. Actually, the book blatantly encourages you to keep on reading – it doesn’t exactly end with a cliffhanger but still it’s the most sequel-baiting ending I’ve seen in a while, in a series that’s not meant to be one continuous story. Hey, it worked!