Click here to read reviewer Kellie Warner's take on Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog.
An unusual setting, unique characters and tons of humor blend together to create a refreshing whodunit in Boris Akunin’s Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog. The first in a series starring a lively, freckle-faced nun with a flair for crime solving, this novel’s long list of quirky suspects gives rise to captivating scenes sometimes bordering on lunacy. The resultant mayhem will tease and confound the reader until the last chapter, just as the reader would expect from this accomplished author and philologist whose real name is Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili.
The trouble begins in late 19th-century Russia in the town of Zavolzhsk, where beloved Bishop Mitrofanii presides over his seemingly contented flock. When a man and a boy are found beheaded by the river, it becomes clear to the bishop that times are changing, and not for the better. To make matters worse, Bishop Mitrofanii is informed that his
great-aunt’s purebred dogs have been poisoned and that she, the rich, capricious widow Marya Afanasievna Tatishcheva, is on her deathbed with grief over the incident. The bishop dispatches his good friend Sister Pelagia to visit his great aunt’s estate, Drozdovka, to try to discover the culprit and to prevent his flighty relative from changing her will as she is prone to do frequently with little thought as to the consequences.
The list of potential heirs includes Marya’s rebellious grandson, Pyotr, who is pursuing a romance with Tanya, the maid; a gorgeous granddaughter, Naina, pursued by many suitors in turn; the estate caretaker, Stepan, who could use the money; Poggio, a traveling photographer who lately seems quite at home at Drozdovka; and an Englishwoman, Miss Wrigley, whose presence is puzzling - but she is currently the sole named beneficiary. Is the contemptible doggie murderer part of this list? Will Marya’s grief really finish her off and send her to the next world? Is poisoning the dogs just the prelude to a more horrific criminal attempt to grab the old lady’s loot? It is up to unobtrusive, clumsy Sister Pelagia to unravel the mystery while the bishop and the chief of police confront the more serious matter of the beheadings and the intentions behind them.
The plot twists and turns, and there are numerous surprises along the way, making this a very enjoyable and entertaining read with a few negative aspects. Be prepared for some confusion resulting from the long Russian names of the characters; you may occasionally find yourself thumbing backward a few pages to clarify the identity of Konstantin Petrovich Pobedin or Vladimir Lvovich Bubentsov. Sister Pelagia is characterized as an intelligent woman who can ferret out clues and solve mysteries with ease, as indicated in the bishop’s letter to his aunt. He says, “She (Sister Pellagia) is an individual of acute intellect and will quickly discover the truth concerning whoever it is that finds your dogs a hindrance.” How is it, then, that she twice ventures out alone, once at night, precipitating two attempts on her own life and both times seems quite taken by surprise? The character sometimes doesn’t seem to live up to her reputation but is delightful nonetheless.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable novel and a well-written mystery. I look forward to the sequel, Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk.