The Sister Pelagia mysteries, by Boris Akunin

Pelagia bulldog cvr

Boris Akunin (Georgian-born Moscow resident Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili) is best known for his Erast Fandorin stores.  He has also written a series of three novels featuring Sister Pelagia, a nun of the Orthodox Church in the Russian provincial city of Zavolzhsk at the tail-end of the nineteenth century who doubles as a first-rate detective.  At the same time it is difficult to characterise these as straightforward detective stories – this is not a Miss Marple-style whodunit.  There is crime and detection certainly, but the books amble around the subject rather than adhere to a direct route focusing on Pelagia, in the process painting a wry portrait of Imperial Russia.  Told by an unnamed narrator, this is not a pastiche of a nineteenth-century style but has a modern sensibility behind it, and doubtless Russian readers will be alert to parallels between Tsarist times as depicted here and the present political situation, with corruption among vested interests, sly backstabbing and power politics.

Red-haired, bespectacled and freckled, Pelagia is clumsy on the surface and easily overlooked, but she is fiercely intelligent though impulsive, and loyal both to the Church and personally to her bishop, Mitrofanii.  Just as Pelagia is not an ordinary nun, he is not a typical cleric: an ex-cavalry officer, he had fought at Balaclava.  He relies on Pelagia’s perspicacity and deductive skills, and uses her as his special agent when a problem needs to be solved.  Their relationship is touching, and while the correct is maintained, they can discuss issues as equals, and the warmth of their regard for each other shines through.  Pelagia is not even above lecturing her spiritual father on theological matters if she feels strongly, sometimes to his annoyance but occasionally to his edification.  For a nun she has a remarkable degree of latitude and while she has a nominal day job, teaching Russian and gymnastics at the convent school (the latter skill occasionally comes in handy when on a mission), she is able to hand over her responsibilities without some inconvenient Mother Superior or the headmistress asking awkward questions.  She is a fairly free agent, sometimes not even informing Mitrofanii what she is up to.  Her exploits are incorporated in three linked, and increasingly complex, novels that should be read in order.

 

Pelagia and the White Bulldog

In the first of the trilogy, Akunin gives a leisurely description of Zavolzhsk and its residents before moving to the main action, the poisoning of a bulldog belonging to Bishop Mitrofanii’s aged and wealthy widowed great-aunt.  These unsavoury animals have been specially bred to be white, with a dark ear, bandy, and very drooly.  Terrified for her two remaining dogs, the old lady wants Mitrofanii to visit in order to find out what has happened and who could have done this terrible deed.  Not considering the matter particularly important, he instead sends his dependable assistant, Sister Pelagia.  She investigates and, while she is unable to prevent the killing of the other dogs, realises that their deaths have broader implications, especially in the light of two headless bodies belonging to a man and boy which have been found nearby.

The political situation in the town has been complicated by the presence of Bubentsov, the representative of the Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod who arrives from St Petersburg to deal with those who are not sufficiently Orthodox and therefore by his definition not sufficiently Russian.  In fact Bubentsov is set to undermine the influence of Mitrofanii, the implication being that his presence is needed because the bishop is not sufficiently in control.  The province is intended to be made an example of for the entire country by having any unorthodox elements purged, a happy by-product for Bubentsov’s being his personal advancement.

The doctrinally relaxed Mitrofanii is appalled at this high-handed and intolerant meddling in his patch.  Bubentsov blames the murders on a local sect, the Zyts, who are peaceful but who are not considered to have left behind their pagan roots, which makes them suspect.  The heads, Bubentsov claims, were removed as part of their rituals, a charge which is both politically and theologically expedient.  Bubentsov proceeds to turn the local administration upside down, and also to catch the eyes of the local ladies, who find him dangerously attractive.  Pelagia works out who has been killing the dogs, but not why, by the end of the first half of the book.  As she suspects, they are part of a broader pattern and the second half deals with the reason why they died and how their deaths are related to other events in the region.  There will be several more murders of humans before Pelagia identifies the perpetrator.

Pelagia does not conform to the stereotype of the unworldly nun.  She has been in the world and knows about its ways.  She goes ‘undercover’, pretending to be her own sister, Polina Andreevna Lisitsyna, a widow, and nobody sees through her disguise as she gathers information as she is rather good at the masquerade.  She shows herself to be resourceful and brave, overcoming her fear when faced with very real danger.  The depth of the bond between Pelagia and Mitrofanii, and Mitrofanii’s tenderness towards her, is evident in the scene where Palagia is ill in bed after surviving an attempt on her life, nearly being drowned in the river, and discovering the hitherto missing heads that belong with the bodies.

There is a playfulness of tone in the novel that is exemplified by an interlude, ‘The Conversations of His Grace Mitrofanii: A brief interpolation’ which recounts conversations between Mitrofanii and the provincial governor.  At this point the action comes to a halt while they talk about how to end endemic corruption, and the reader is told that the section can be skipped over and ‘no damage will be caused to the elegant line of the narrative’.  Another writer would have discarded this part for the very reason that it does not add to the line of the narrative, whether elegant or not, but while it is not germane to the mystery, it rounds out our understanding of Zavolzhsk and adds to the depth of the story by providing context.  It also casts the rigidly intolerant Bubentsov in a poor light as Mitrofanii is clearly demonstrated to be a force for good in the area, relatively liberal in his attitudes and exercising a positive influence on local officials.

In so many crime stories the detective accuses the murderer and a confession immediately follows, when there would have been a fighting chance of acquittal at a trial.  In this case there is a trial to provide a suitable climax, with a twist when Pelagia realises who the true murderer is.  The novel ends with Bubentsov heading off with his tail between his legs, and a clear segue into the second Sister Pelagia mystery…

 

Pelagia and the Black Monk

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… which literally begins where the first leaves off, directly after the trial that concludes the preceding volume, with a dusty monk racing through the streets of Zavolzhsk.  The problem the monk presents Mitrofanii and Pelagia with has even more twists and turns than Pelagia had to navigate when investigating the deaths of the bulldogs, though again Akunin takes his time with his leisurely plotting, not being afraid to go down the odd tributary as the case meanders to its conclusion.  Purists may consider the result loosely structured, but that is a large part of its charm, along with the relationship between Pelagia and Mitrofanii.  At one point they have an argument and Pelagia leaves the room having overstepped the mark, as she occasionally does in her enthusiasm, and as Mitrofanii carries on a conversation with someone else he mournfully looks at the door, hoping she will come back.  He may pretend to be angry with her on occasion, but he cannot maintain the pose for long.  It is in such moments that it is apparent how beautifully rendered Akunin’s characterisation is.

Zavolzhsk features less than it did in the first book.  The bulk occurs on an island in the Blue Lake belonging to the church.  This is part of New Ararat, an archipelago, once home only to ascetics, now a thriving settlement attracting pilgrims which has grown to be wealthy under the supervision of Father Vitalii.  Theoretically within Mitrofanii’s purview, in practice Vitalii’s community is autonomous, as it is Mitrofanii’s policy to leave a successful operation alone and focus on those parts of his jurisdiction more in need of his guidance.  The news the dusty monk has brought beggars belief – the founder of the community, Basilisk, or rather his eerily-glowing ghost, has returned after 800 years, bearing cryptic warnings about a tiny satellite island on which three monks live.  This is Outcast Island, where the three chosen monks are in almost complete seclusion, their number maintained by a replacement joining them when one dies.  What is this manifestation of the mysterious Basilisk – has he really come back after so many centuries, is there some supernatural entity stalking the nights, or at least those when the moon shines, and is the hermitage on Outcast Island cursed, as people are beginning to think?

Sister Pelagia plays a small role in the first half of the novel, much of which is devoted to the investigations of others who precede her to New Ararat.  Mitrofanii is limited in what he can do because the charter of the community forbids the presence of nuns, there having been some unfortunate incidents in the past.  As Pelagia cannot go he sends a series of agents to determine the truth of the rumours, including a young atheist.  It is only when these fail in their missions, one dying in curious circumstances and the others going mad, a cumulative catastrophe which causes Mitrofanii to fall gravely ill, that Pelagia takes it upon herself, against Mitrofanii’s express wishes, to once again adopt the persona of the Muscovite widow Polina Andreevna Lisitsyna, ostensibly come to Ararat as a pilgrim (the reader may wonder why Mitrofanni and Pelagia did not discuss this option earlier).

As resourceful as ever, Pelagia even adopts the guise of a novice monk, Pelagius, in order to get information.  In her dual guise she immerses herself in the holy and secular parts of the island (her task made complicated by the presence of a clinic for mentally unstable individuals) and finds that there is more than one conspiracy at work.  As one might expect from Akunin the reality is convoluted, as Pelagia’s working theories show themselves to be inadequate until she eventually hits on the truth, once again putting her life in danger in the process.  The solution melds old-fashioned superstition with up-to the-minute (well, late nineteenth-century) science as the reader learns not only who has been impersonating Basilisk to such deadly effect, but why the monks who live on Outcast Island have such a short life expectancy.  A rational explanation is found, but the paradox is that Mitrofanii, the man of religion, is up to date on research being conducted by the Curies and Becherel, whereas the atheist rationalist who murders to gain financial advantage by exploiting the secrets of Outcast Island is finally undone by his ignorance of radioactivity.  One might almost detect the hand of God in the outcome.

 

Pelagia and the Red Rooster

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The three novels in the series move outwards geographically from the vicinity of Zavolzhsk in the first, New Ararat in the second, and the Holy Land and points in between in the final instalment.  It is the strangest of the three, different in tone to its predecessors and much more violent.  Like the others, though, it touches on fundamental themes of loss, love and the nature of obligation and the spiritual calling, while throwing in possible time travel.  None of the Sister Pelagia books can be characterised as straightforward, but this one is noteworthy in its complexity as it twists and turns among a large cast of characters.

It begins with a murder on a boat after Mitrofanii and Pelgia are returning from having their knuckles rapped by the Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod in St Petersburg, her crime-fighting alter ego Lisitsyna having come to his attention.  Pelagia has sworn never to become involved in such matters again, but of course her natural intelligence and inquisitiveness fight against her vow.  Despite herself she finds herself drawn into the murder investigation, becoming more deeply embroiled in its ramifications until once again she finds her life in danger.

The answers seem to lie with a charismatic man by the name of Manuila who seemingly possesses abilities to hypnotise and read minds.  He was the intended murder victim, saved because someone was masquerading as him and died in his stead.  Manuila is a prophet and holy fool who is travelling to Ottoman-controlled Palestine, as are many others on the boat.  Lisitsyna follows to find out who the dark forces are who wish both him, and now her, such ill.  Of these there are various candidates – Manuila has attracted Russian converts to Judaism whom the orthodox Jews and Zionists despise; while Orthodox Christian Russians fear Manuila’s influence in attracting Christians away from what they see as the true faith.  In short, Akunin displays a rotting society riven by xenophobia.  Hypocritically pious, the second coming of Jesus would be deemed inconvenient to the authorities as it would lead to social unrest and risk the established order.

As before, Pelagia is not always centre stage, much of the narrative alternating between her and Berdichevsky, the District Prosecutor and someone also close to Mitrofanii, who conducts his own investigation.  Mitrofanii makes only rare appearances, and the reader misses the counterbalance between him and Pelagia and their ambiguous relationship.  Pelagia finds herself caught up in numerous difficult situations, but often these are resolved by external forces rather than by the use of her intelligence.  Meanwhile Berdichevsky acts as a Pelagia stand-in, using his powers of detection as he follows the conspiracy within Russia.  He meets his share of eccentrics as he too unravels the threads while Pelagia is mostly roaming round the desert on a cart.  The result feels unbalanced in terms of the plot though it gives Akunin plenty of opportunities to explore the place of Jews in Imperial Russia as Berdichevsky finds himself in the Pale of Settlement, an uncomfortable experience for him as a Jewish convert to Christianity, treated with disdain by both sides.  The exploration of the place of Judaism in that time and place is one of the book’s major strengths.

At the same time Pelagia’s Middle-Eastern peregrinations give an intriguing portrait of a land in transition, with Jews leaving hostile Russia and settling in Palestine, leading to friction with the indigenous population, though the effect is somewhat marred by the peculiar introduction of a town called New Sodom, a settlement funded by an American millionaire from which women are excluded and which is populated entirely by gay men.  Tension is introduced into Pelagia’s thread via a ruthless killer on her trail, his instructions to let her lead him to Manuila, and then dispose of them both.  In pursuit of his goal he dispatches a number of victims without compunction.

The structure of the novel seems to sprawl but in fact is deceptively tight, as we realise that the motor of the conspiracy is someone who appeared right at the beginning, though there is a good chance the reader has forgotten the fact after several hundred pages; in fact he is a character who hovers in the background of Pelagia and the White Bulldog.  It transpires that evil can be found in the most unlikely of guises, and can happen even when its perpetrators believe they are acting for a higher good and are prepared to make extreme personal sacrifices in pursuit of what they consider to be right.

There is much sadness in this final volume, with Berdichevsky, who has appeared in all three, dead, and Pelgia – well, who knows?  The entire novel is hunt with a sense of foreboding, from the moment near the beginning when Mitrofanii wonders aloud whether Pelagia is cut out to be a nun and would better serve God in a secular capacity.  As she travels ever further from the stability of Zavolzhsk and the warmth of Mitrofanii’s study there seems less and less chance of her going back to her old life as head of the convent school (Mitrofanii had promoted her at the end of the business with the Black Monk and naturally she proved a shrewd educationalist, if not one whose methods were universally admired).

The novel does not wrap up neatly but is left open.   It is possible that there is a supernatural element, with Pelagia shifted in time, just as it is possible that Jesus, now Manuila (Emmanuel), accidentally found himself two thousand years in his future, in late nineteenth-century Russia.  The tension between natural and supernatural interpretations mirrors the tension in Pelagia herself between her emphasis on rational explanations and a faith which encompasses a reality not always congruent with empirical understanding.  She learns from Manuila that the Biblical account of the crucifixion is full of errors and misunderstandings; just as the assassin on the boat got the wrong man, the authorities back then didn’t even execute the right person, possibly killing his cousin in his place.  ‘Biblical inerrancy’ is exposed as a collection of tales which may or may not bear a close relationship to the truth.  Or is it?  It is hard to take seriously the mechanism used to travel in time: a red rooster and a special type of cave, as Pelagia concedes; yet the uncertainty lingers.

The ending takes the form of a long letter from Pelagia to Mitrofanii, she being missing.  Partway through reading it he falls asleep and has a dream in which it appears he realises that he loves Pelagia in a way not consistent with her status as a nun and his as her spiritual advisor, and there is a hint, if we believe that dreams can have some link to a greater reality, that she may actually now be dead.  Mitrofanii is not alone in his subconscious displaying his true feelings; numerous people fall in love with Pelagia, sometimes to their detriment.  Readers may find the same emotion strikes them as they conclude this third, and surely final, volume devoted to the adventures of that singular nun.

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