At first it may seem that this will be a hard book to get through in terms of readability. This is not the case. The narrative voice in this book by Boris Akunin effortlessly moves the reader along. There is just enough description to familiarise the reader with the setting of rural 19th century Russia. Andrew Bromfield has done a great job of translating it from the original Russian.
The book is the first in a series of crime fiction novels by Akunin. Pelagia is a clumsy but intelligent nun in a rural town in Russia who has a gift for solving mysteries. Her partner in this venture is none other than the Archbishop of the region who inadvertently gets the credit and reputation for the crimes and mysteries solved by Pelagia, thereby having more people petition him constantly to help them. Though the Archbishop tries his best to give the nun the credit, the social attitudes of the time conspire against him and Pelagia herself is rather content for others to not know about her adventures.
There is a lot of Orthodox Christianity described in this novel as well as philosophy but it in no way detracts or offends the reader. It exists as a framework for the constraints under which the Archbishop and nun operate and also describes the attitudes of State, Church and society.
Pelagia’s gift is that of keen observation. Something of benefit to her is that others often see her as unassuming or part of the furniture, thereby allowing her to see more of what goes on. This novel starts out with a simple request on the part of the Archbishop’s aunt who asks him to find out who has murdered her bulldog. Too busy to go himself, he sends Pelagia who soon finds herself caught up in a case that by the end of the novel has involved blackmail, theft and several murders (both dog and human) not to mention a lot of corruption that threatens the delicately balanced political nature of the rural town and district. Scandal and twists abound greatly, this is not necessarily a tame read despite the religious natures of the protagonist and her partner. Instead, their religious nature allows them to take an objective view of events which is what helps them solve the mystery in the first place.
At the end of the novel is a courtroom scene that can remind one of the Perry Mason novels. The novel ends with the promise of more cases and mysteries to come and describes perfectly the continual hassle of fixing other people’s problems that the Archbishop (and thereby Pelagia) know of as part of their lives. It may seem obvious as to who the villain is to the reader from the start as the narrator and other characters have no qualms about describing the nature of evil but villain though he is, the end of the novel finds him merely chased out of town while the actual murderer has a different fate. Being as villainous as he is, he makes for the best red herring I have ever come across in a mystery/crime novel, which is one of the many reasons I love this book.
The mystery twists and turns, the actual case is extremely bizarre and slightly gory, the protagonists are completely unexpected and the main villain for most of the book, though evil, is a red herring. Go get this book now, it is an absolute gem.
– Marisa Wikramanayake