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SISTER PELAGIA AND THE WHITE BULLDOG
by Boris Akunin
Random House, January 2007
299 pages
$9.95
ISBN: 0812975138


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Boris Akunin compares his own work to a matyrushka doll, those Russian dolls which open to disclose a smaller doll until the very smallest, which will reduce no further, is encountered. He claims that no reader will penetrate to the tiniest nugget within his books, since that is written with himself only in mind.

Certainly, I doubt I penetrated beyond the first couple in SISTER PELAGIA AND THE WHITE BULLDOG. Akunin (the pen name itself comprises several layers) discusses religion, politics and regional rivalries amongst various subjects he manages to incorporate in this thoroughly enchanting tale featuring a charming protagonist.

Mitrofanii, Bishop of Zavolshie, is less than pleased to receive a letter from his great-aunt, Marya Afanasievna Taticheva, telling him of her great distress at having two of her white bulldogs poisoned, one dying, and summoning Mitrofanii to her bedside in order to solve the crime.

The bulldogs were specially bred by her late husband and producing a line that will breed true is now the widow's life's work. The Bishop is ill-disposed to obey so instead commissions Pelagia, a young nun who has been instrumental in his solving previous crimes, to attend upon the lady.

On her way to the estate, Pelagia encounters a group of villagers who are standing around two decapitated corpses, a man and a young male child. (Needless to say, Pelagia contrives to solve these and subsequent murders as well as the murder of the bulldog, before the end of the narrative).

Vladimir Lvovich Bubentsov is an inspector sent to the province by the Holy Synod. A gambler and womaniser, it is difficult to imagine anyone less likely for the appointment but he solves the case of the decapitated unknowns to his own satisfaction: they must have been killed by Zyts, worshipers of a pagan god to whom human (decapitated) sacrifices were formerly offered up.

Once ensconced in the estate, Pelagia is the inadvertent eavesdropper on several conversations that give her an insight into the characters of people living on and around the property, not the least the suitors for the hand of the beautiful princess Naina, granddaughter of Marya Afansievna and the identity of the man for whom the girl pines.

Akunin laces his work with gentle humour and satire. The social and religious themes in SISTER PELAGIA AND THE WHITE BULLDOG could be seen equally as applying to western society although possibly the religious aspect would have less impact in the west as to both historical and modern day Russia.

The characterisations are quirkily drawn, the plotting intricate and the scenery and atmosphere beautifully evoked. Certainly, it is pleasant to know that Akunin has already written more in the Pelagia (and her alter ego sister, Polina Lisitsina) series. To my mind, Pelagia is even more delightful than the author's other, and perhaps better-known, protagonist, Erast Fandorin.

One thing, naturally enough, that all the books from this author have in common is the potential befuddlement of western readers because of the confusing names of the dramatis personae. It is necessary to bear in mind at all times that each character may have several different appellations, depending on how he is addressed and described. Still, the reader is helped by the cast list at the beginning of the novel, one to which they are advised to have frequent recourse in order to minimise bewilderment.

While the action does not bound along on a straight path, it is well worthwhile following the by-ways the author constructs as he examines the customs and conditions of the country and the day.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, August 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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