Click here to read reviewer Patricia Denehy's take on Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog.
When is a mystery not quite a mystery? When it is written in the style of a Jane Austen commentary on society and weaves mystery aspects throughout the account with curious reasoning.
The book, like the author, is Russian and thus comes to English-speaking readers in translation. Sometimes translated works can be difficult to read, but that does not seem to be the case here. The characters are by and large well-defined and the small Russian town comes alive, but the plot is weak and not entirely easy to follow.
The author’s given name is Grigory Chkhartishvili, and he was born in the republic of Georgia in 1956. He published his first detective stories in 1998 and has become one of the most widely read authors in Russia. Making his home in Moscow, he has written nine Erast Fandorin novels to date. White Bulldog is the first is a new series featuring the nun Sister Pelagia as the protagonist. Set in a small Russian village, it appears to be a dramatic turnaround from the acclaimed Erast Fandorin series. Fandorin is a government clerk turned detective who is brash with a dry wit. Those novels involve everything from serial killers to government conspiracies, and it sounds like a fascinating series that would be a far better read then this foray into the genre featuring a clumsy nun and an arrogant Bishop.
Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog features a nun with the power of deduction – Ms. Marple in a wimple. Pelagia is short-sighted, clumsy and easily shocked. She gets involved in this remarkable saga via her bishop, whose aunt is all aflutter about her prize white bulldog being poisoned. Pelagia goes to investigate but is unable to save two other dogs from a grisly fate before revealing the dog murderer’s identity. End of story? Well, no - there are also the headless corpses which have been fetched from the river, as well as two murders much later in the book linked to art and, of course, the bulldogs.
The confusing tale gets lost among the fantastic descriptions of Russian society and the Russian people, never developing a compelling rhythm. As early as chapter two, the narrator leaves Pelagia's journey to explain the relationships of the elite in Pelagia’s village. This is where Austen or Dickens would have been proud. We are treated to tales of dueling, deceit, romance and totally over the top shenanigans, all apparently to set the stage for the final reveal.
The final scene where Pelagia reveals all when giving evidence at a trial is a distorted facsimile of Poirot gathering all the suspects in the drawing room; Pelagia uses the witness chair to announce to all concerned whodunit.
We start with Pelagia and end with her; she changes personalities along the way, showing strength of character one minute and a sheep-like obedience to the Church the next. As a proper closeted nun, it is preposterous when, during her investigations, she disguises herself as her sister, a charming, beautiful woman of the world, well enough to fool all. The clumsy nun is a mistress of deceit yet at other times worries about her immortal soul for much simpler indiscretions.
As a protagonist of a cozy mystery series, Sister Pelagia is lacking. Akunin has been compared to Arthur Conan Doyle and Ruth Rendell. I would have to read one of the Fandorin novels to substantiate this claim; this book does not live up to either. Pelagia is no Sherlock or Wexford as she lacks the depth, strength and humanity these detectives possess.
I was astounded when I did a search of nuns in mystery series as to how many there are available. There are plenty of nuns to choose from, and the mixture of a religious figure working as a detective can be popular, clever and amusing if done well. There is high praise for series by Veronica Black and Margaret Fraser, both featuring clever, astute, super-sleuth nuns. There are various clergymen who act as sleuths as well, and I would recommend Brother Cadfael (Ellis Peters) easily over Sister Pelagia.
Akunin has received critical acclaim and high praise from the likes of Anne Perry. Yet this book does not seem to work, and I wonder if the popularity is due mostly to readers of the Fandorin series not wanting to critique the new series. Overall, this book as a mystery is confusing and lacking in suspense. As a character, Pelagia needs some work to be truly likeable. In the novel’s favor lies the brilliant social commentary.The exchange between characters about the nature of good government versus bad, as well as the influence of the Orthodox Church, highlights the difficulties of Russian life while showing the wit and resilience of those who cope in the turbulent times.
There are moments of great hilarity which have nothing to do with the mystery at hand. One instance is when one character decides he must challenge another to a duel. He states:
"I have a reason. He tweaked my nose, and very painfully, too, so that it bled, but I did nothing…"
To which he receives the reply:
“According to the rules of dueling, a challenge must be issued within twenty-four hours after the insult has been given and not later…”
Highly amusing stuff and more of the same would have gone down very well.
"Then I shall tweak his nose, too, he will know what for!”
This is a brilliant writer who has much to offer, but I did not find it in this book. There must be some other readers who would enjoy a mystery interwoven into a different style of book, as this book is popular; perhaps I missed something. By all means, give this book a try. I would love to hear what you think.