Sister Pelagia (creator: Boris Akunin)

Boris Akunin
It is the late 19th century. Sister Pelagia teaches literature and gymnastics in the diocesan school for girls (not that we ever see her there) in the small Russian town of Zavolzhsk. It is a remote place but "it is a well-known fact that the further one goes from the capital, the nearer one approaches to God". Bishop Metrofanii, much loved and respected there, has the reputation of "unravelling all sorts of baffling mysteries, especially those of a criminal complexion" - but the secret of his success is really the "meek and mild novice Pelagia", who not only solves the mysteries, but, when necessary, is even prepared to assume the identity of a charming, handsomely dressed, no longer clumsy, so-called sister of hers, Polina Andreevna Lisitsina. She has done this, with great success, on various occasions, and admits to the Bishop that she actually enjoys this play-acting: "That is what I am afraid of, worldly temptation. These masquerades make my heart beat faster. And that is a sin".

Much though the Bishop benefits from her services, he realises that "she was really not cut out to be a nun: far too lively, fidgety, curious and undignified in her movements." Rather too like him, in fact. She was, he reflected as she stepped on the father subdeacon's foot, and sent a bowl of apples flying all over the floor, "a walking disaster with freckles". She looked innocent enough: her "clear, sweet, oval face seemed winsome and naive, but this deceptive impression derived from the snub nose and the astonished look of the raised eyebrows, while the round brown eyes gazed out keenly through equally round spectacle lenses with a look that was far from simple, and from the eyes one could tell that this was certainly no young innocent - she had already known suffering, seen something of life and had time to reflect on her experiences. The air of youthful freshness came from the white skin that often accompanies ginger hair, and from the orange speckling of ineradicable freckles". She is some thirty years old when we first meet her.

She can speak freely to the Bishop who appreciates her powers of observation and quick intelligence, although her "transitions from boldness to meekness and back again always occurred with such lightning speed that it was impossible to keep track of them". Altogether, she is a force to be reckoned with, although she much prefers to stay in the background, particularly if she can do some quiet eavesdropping. But, if roused, she's ready to defend herself, jabbing out with her knitting needles as needed. And as she is highly inquisitive, she makes a resolute and determined detective.

Sister Pelagia is the creation of Boris Akunin whose real name is Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili (1956 - ). How helpful for us that he chose to use another name! He's a best-selling Russian fiction writer, scholar, translator (from the Japanese), critic, and essayist, who lives in Moscow, and has written eleven novels featuring the secret agent Erast Fandorin. His first Sister Pelagia book, Pelagia & the White Bulldog, appeared in Russia in 2001 (the first English translation was not published until 2006). It was followed by two more: Pelagia and the Black Monk and Pelagia and the Red Rooster. The English translator is Andrew Bromfield. Akunin says that his one aim is to be an entertainer, so it is no use looking to him for an explanation of the meaning of life.

Pelagia & the White Bulldog (First English translation 2006)
Pelagia & the White Bulldog tells of a formidable Synodical Inspector's arrival in the sleepy rural town. This is the sinister bully-boy, but charmer of women, Vladimir Lvovich Bubentsov, who comes complete with a murderous Circassian bodyguard, and a scheming thirteenth-grade civil servant whom he always refers to as "undershirt". His aim is to force all "Old Believers" back to "the bosom of Orthodoxy" . Bishop Mitrofanii tells him that all this is "pernicious nonsense .... I say let everyone believe as he wishes, as long as he believes in God, and not in the devil. As long as people behave in a godly manner, that is all that is necessary". But Bubentsov has other plans.

Meanwhile there is the violent death of a prized white bulldog, belonging to a cantankerous old lady, then the headless bodies of a man and boy are pulled out of the river. More murders follow, and it is left to the Bishop (or rather, Sister Pelagia) to see that justice is eventually done. The Bishop has clear ideas about right and wrong. It had taken him several years to gradually change things so that "the priests and deacons were sober, they led the services in a dignified manner, their sermons were moral and comprehensible, they did not accept any offerings over and above what was prescribed".

The Bishop had had his eye too on the corrupt practices of town officials. Even the new young German governor had fallen under his beneficial influence. "He used to be a German, but he completely recovered". There's even a whole chapter about the long conversations they had together, but the author starts it by explaining helpfully, "It is permissible to omit this brief chapter entirely. No damage will be done to the elegant line of the narrative as a result".

Patience is required of the reader for it takes time for the story to unfold, and the unusual historical setting and long Russian names do not always make it easy to follow. But it is worth persevering with, and leads up to a really dramatic court case in which the characters of the local prosecutor, hitherto rather timid Matvei Bentsionovich Berdichevsky, and the famous defence lawyer, Gurii Samsonovich Lomeiko ("the luminary of the Russian bar and a celebrity on a European scale"), really come alive. Berdichevsky couldn't help but think "with envy of the investigators of former times. Life had been so simple and easy for them. Pick up a suspect, put him on the rack, and he would happily confess all on his own". But now he's up against a really wily opponent. It all makes for a strong ending.

The little town and its various officials are affectionately and convincingly described. And the relationship between Sister Pelagia and her Bishop in nothing if not a lively one. When the Bishop asks the assistant procurator to take Sister Pelagio with him to visit the site of a murder, he suggests, while flashing a rapid glance at Sister Pelagia, that he could always explain to anyone who objects to her presence that that "the nun is meek and humble, she is feeble-minded and will not hinder the investigation". The author's sense of humour enlivens the whole story. Right at the very end of the book, a monk comes galloping up and shouts to Pelagia. "But then," interrupts the author, "we shall not relate here exactly what the messenger shouted, because that will be the beginning of an entirely different story, one even stranger than the story of the white bulldog".

Pelagia and the Black Monk (2001. First English translation 2007)
Pelagia and the Black Monk follows immediately after the first book. It starts with the arrival of a desperately frightened monk who seeks the help of Bishop Mitrofanii. The monks at New Ararat monastery have been troubled by visions of a dark, hooded figure that appears to walk on the waters of the Blue Lake. Could it be the return of their long-dead founder, Basilisk? The Bishop send three important o
fficials to investigate, one after another, but they all meet with unexpected fates. Finally Sister Pelagia takes matters into her own hands and, suitably disguised, even ventures across the Blue Lake to the forbidden Basilisk Hermitage on Outskirts Island. But as she delves deeper into the layers of secrecy that cloak the islanders, and as the body count continues to rise, her life too is threatened.

It is all written with a fine comic invention, as when it is explained that the only contact that the three monks on the island (who are sworn to silence) have with the monastery ashore is by a daily boat. "The head of the hermitage came out to meet the boat, and recited a brief quotation that contained a request, usually of a practical nature: to deliver certain food supplies or medicines, or shoes, or warm blanket." The compulsory Biblical quotation was then followed by just two words that described what was wanted. This could prove quite confusing: "One day the hermitage's abbot indicated one of the other monks with his staff and declared darkly: 'All his innards did pour forth'." He then added the words 'pear-water'. The senior monks "leafed through Holy Writ for a long time and eventually found these strange words in the Acts of the Apostles, in the passage describing the suicide of the contemptible Judas, and were greatly alarmed, thinking that the ascetic must have committed the very worst of mortal sins and laid hands on himself. For three days they tolled the bells, observed the strictest possible fast and offered up prayers to be purged of the pollution of sin; but then it turned out that the venerable monk had simply suffered a bout of diarrhoea and the abbot had been asking for him to be sent some pear liquor."

Or there is the Ararat monks' ingenuity in "making money out of everything and even out of nothing .... Take the water. An entire regiment of monks pours the local well water into bottles, seals the bottles with caps and glues on labels that say New Ararat Holy Water, blessed by the Reverend Father Vitali, after which this H20 is shipped wholesale to the mainland .... Meanwhile in Ararat, for the convenience of the pilgrims, they have constructed a wonder of wonders, a miracle of miracles, which is called the Automatic Holy Water Dispensers ... When someone drops a five-kopeck coin into the slot, it falls on a valve, a shutter opens and the holy water pours into a mug. There is also a more expensive version, for ten kopecks, in which raspberry syrup is added to the water in a kind of special 'triple blessing'." And all this was happening at a time when the Olympic Games (refounded in 1896) could still be described as a "new-fangled Euoropean amusement".

Pelagia is able to solve the mystery that had defeated the previous male investigators because, as she explains, "Men have no curiosity about anything they regard as unimportant, but the unimportant often conceals the most essential. When something has to be built or, even better, demolished, then men have no equals. But if patience, understanding and possibly even compassion are required, then it is best to entrust the business to a woman." And as Pelagia demonstrates, there are two standard laws for dealing with men: "If you want a man to like you, flatter him" then "lead the man onto the subject that interests him more than any other, and then listen properly. That is all that there is to it."

It all makes a lively, inventive, and entertaining fantasy with some fine eccentric characters such as the millionaire doctor Donat Korovin who runs his own private psychiatric clinic, as a sort of hobby, with "no walls, no locks, nothing but grassy meadows, little groves of trees, little doll's houses, pagodas and pergolas, ponds and streams, conservatories - a heavenly spot .... He does not keep his patients under lock and key, as has been the custom in civilised countries since olden times: they are entirely at liberty to go where they will. This lends the crowds on the streets of New Ararat a certain risqué variety: one is hard put to tell which of the people one meets are normal ... and which of them are Korovin's crazy clients."

Or there is Israel, the abbot of Basilisk Hermitage, who, before he became a monk, had been one of those rich and idle aristocrats "who for lack of anything useful to occupy their time, take up some kind of hobby, devoting themselves passionately to their chosen whimsey and spending their entire lives and fortunes on it. This man had chosen a passion that is not particularly rare, but is the most engrossing of all - he collected women." Then, having ploughed "his way wildly through all the lush years", he eventually got bored with it all and rushed "to save his immortal soul - and with the same intense passion" that he used to put into sinning.

The story is nothing if not an entertaining read, with all sorts of unexpected touches, including even what we would now describe as a description of the effects of radiation. And Sister Pelagia continues to hold the interest. Recommended for its sheer originality.

Pelagia and the Red Rooster (2003. English translation, 2008)
Pelagia and the Red Rooster sees Sister Pelagia aboard the river steamer Sturgeon, dodging pickpockets, zealots and a sinister man with a detachable eye. The supposed brutal murder of a would-be Messiah (called Manuela) in the next cabin spells the end of Pelagia's retirement from sleuthing, and the beginning of a very strange investigation that takes her (under another name and no longer dressed as a nun) to the Holy Land, where she travels to the self-proclaimed prophet's home, a secluded village in the foothills of the Urals. There she hears tales of miracles and roosters, and of caves that act as portals to other worlds.

But as an assassin closes in, Peragia has to flee, leaving a smitten public prosecutor to trawl the underbelly of Russia's religious bigots and extremist sects. Meanwhile Pelagia travels through Palestine, with an assassin pursuing her at every turn. Her criminal enquiry is overtaken by a spiritual enquiry of her own, leading to an unsatisfying conclusion in which she becomes convinced that Manuela ( who now calls himself Immanuel) really believes that he is Christ - and she even wonders, "What if he really is Jesus?"

The author had previously claimed that his one aim was to be an entertainer and that it was no use looking to him for an explanation of the meaning of life. But in this book he gets increasingly preoccupied with discussion about a possible Messiah. Immanuel had said "that he did not know whether God existed or not and that it is not important ... What if there is no God?" he said; "does that mean that man can act like a beast? We are not children who only behave properly in the presence of adults."

"When Pelagia asked him if he believed in life after death he replied, "How should I know? I will find out when I die. While you are living here, you should think about this life, not the next one. Although, of course, it is interesting to dream. It seems to me that there must be another life and that the death of the body is not the end of a man, but a kind of new birth." it is difficult to know how the author intends us to take all this. It does not read like comic satire.

The most interesting parts of the book are the details of life in Russia and in Israel during the latter part of the 19th-century. These include descriptions of razins (" experts at cleaning out other people's pockets" on board ship), the foundlings (Manuela's followers who had chosen to imitate the Jews much to the Jews' scorn), and Pelagia's encounter with Sodomites. One of them tells her: "An American millionaire, Mr George Sairus, the well-known philanthropist, discovered the spot where the biblical Sodom stood. And now a heavenly new city is being built there - for people like us." Presumably both the foundlings and the new Sodom are inventions of the author. The Oprichniks, on the other hand, a violently anti-Semitic secret militia, sound all too possible.

Pelagia herself seems only too happy to set off for Palestine and abandon her six-month headship of the girls' school, where she "had managed to introduce more than enough reforms to draw down on her head the displeasure of the head of the Holy Synod." She had reduced the curriculum to only four subjects "without which, in her opinion, it was impossible to get by ... She made domestic science the central subject, devoting half of the lessons to it, and she also kept gymnastics, literature and religious studies, which was also singing." It might have been interesting to have heard more about all this.

Pelagia herself seems happier living a violent and adventurous life, as when "with a sickening squeal, she thrust the two (knitting) needles straight through the cloth of the bag into the murderer's only eye." There is a lot of violence (including loud crunches as bones are broken, as well as more gougings of eyes). Much of the action, though, takes place where she is not present, when some of the long Russian names become particularly confusing and it is not always easy to remember who is who. Some of the humour, though, remains in the memory, as when it is explained that mothers-in-law are safe from bandits "because nobody pays a ransom for a mother in law".

As for the red rooster, there turns out to be an old saying that, "If you lose the way in the hollow, you need to set a rooster free, and he'll find the way out for sure". And indeed this happens to Pelagia when she is imprisoned in a cave. And, right at the end, the red rooster makes possible what might (or might not) prove to be an escape into another world. But after the fun and the entertainment of the previous books, it all comes as something of a disappointment.

There is an interesting interview with the author on the DailyTelegraph site, but no reference there to Sister Pelagia. There's a bibliography on the Fantastic Fiction site.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Pelagia & the White Bulldog cover
This British cover suggests the exotic background, but does not quite do justice to the author's sense of fun.
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