Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog (Sister Pelagia Series #1)by Boris Akunin
–The Literary Review
In a remote Russian province in the late nineteenth century, Bishop Mitrofanii must deal with a family crisis. After learning that one of his great aunt’s beloved and/i>
“Pelagia’s family likeness to Father Brown and Miss Marple is marked, and reading about her supplies a similarly decorous pleasure.”
–The Literary Review
In a remote Russian province in the late nineteenth century, Bishop Mitrofanii must deal with a family crisis. After learning that one of his great aunt’s beloved and rare white bulldogs has been poisoned, the Orthodox bishop knows there is only one detective clever enough to investigate the murder: Sister Pelagia.
The bespectacled, freckled Pelagia is lively, curious, extraordinarily clumsy, and persistent. At the estate in question, she finds a whole host of suspects, any one of whom might have benefited if the old lady (who changes her will at whim) had expired of grief at the pooch’s demise. There’s Pyotr, the matron’s grandson, a nihilist with a grudge who has fallen for the maid; Stepan, the penniless caretaker, who has sacrificed his youth to the care of the estate; Miss Wrigley, a mysterious Englishwoman who has recently been named sole heiress to the fortune; Poggio, an opportunistic and freeloading “artistic” photographer; and, most intriguingly, Naina, the old lady’s granddaughter, a girl so beautiful she could drive any man to do almost anything.
As Pelagia bumbles and intuits her way to the heart of a mystery among people with faith only in greed and desire, she must bear in mind the words of Saint Paul: “Beware of dogs–and beware of evil-doers.”
“Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have praised [Akunin’s] clever plots, vivid characters and wit.”
“Akunin’s wonderful novels are always intricately webbed and plotted.”
–The Providence Journal
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER 1 The Death of Zagulyai
. . . but i should tell you that, come the apple festival of Transfiguration Day, when the sky begins to change from summer to autumn, it is the usual thing for our town to be overrun by an absolute plague of cicadas, so that by night, much as you might wish to sleep, you never can, what with all that interminable trilling on all sides, and the stars hanging down low over your head, and especially with the moon dangling just above the tops of the bell towers, for all the world like one of our renowned “smetana” apples, the kind that the local merchants supply to the royal court and even take to shows in Europe. If someone should ever happen to glance down at Zavolzhsk from those heavenly spheres out of which the lamps of the night pour forth their bright rays, then the picture presented to that fortunate person’s eyes would surely be one of some enchanted kingdom: the River sparkling lazily, the roofs glittering, the gas lamps flickering in the streets, and, hovering over all the shimmer and glimmer of this multifarious radiance, the tremulous silvery chiming of the cicada choir.
But let us return to the reverend Mitrofanii. Our passing reference to nature was made purely and simply to explain why on such a night even the most ordinary of men, far less burdened with cares than the bishop of the province, would find sleep hard to come by. It is hardly surprising that ill-wishers, of whom every man has some, even this worthy pastor being no exception, should claim that it is not our governor, Anton Antonovich von Haggenau, but His Grace who is the true ruler of this extensive region.
Extensive indeed the region may be, but densely populated it is not. The only genuine town it can really be said to possess is Zavolzhsk, and the others, including the district centers, are more like overgrown villages with a few stone administrative buildings clustered around a single square, a small cathedral, and a hundred or two little log houses with tin roofs of the kind that since time immemorial have for some reason always been painted green in these parts.
And, God knows, even the provincial capital is no Babylon—at the time we are describing, its entire population amounted to twenty-three thousand five hundred eleven individuals of both sexes. Although, of course, during the week following Transfiguration, if no one was to die, the number of inhabitants was expected to increase by two souls, because the wife of the manager of the provincial chancelry, Shtops, and the tradesman’s wife, Safulina, were near their time, and the general opinion was that the latter was already overdue.
The custom of maintaining a strict accounting of the population had only been introduced recently, under the current administration, and then only in the towns. How many folk there may be making a living out in the forests and the swamps is something known only to God—go try counting them! The dense, impenetrable thickets extend for hundred of miles from the River all the way to the Ural Mountains, with schismatic monastic communities and salt factories buried among them, and along the banks of the dark, deep rivers that, for the most part, have no names at all, dwells the Zyt tribe, a quiet and submissive people of Ugrian blood.
The only mention of the ancient life of our obscure province is contained in the Nizhny-Novgorod Miscellany, a chronicle from the fifteenth century. It speaks of a Novgorodian visitor by the name of Ropsha who was captured by “the wild, bare-bellied pagans” in the green forests and lost his head in a sacrifice to the stone idol Shishiga, and as the chronicler for some reason finds it necessary to explain, “this Ropsha did perish and give up the ghost and was buried without a head.”
But that was long ago, in the time of myth. Nowadays a splendid peace reigns supreme in these parts, with no brigandage on the roads, no killing, and even the wolves in the local forests are noticeably fatter and lazier than in other provinces, due to the abundance of wild- life here. God grant everyone a life as good as ours. And as for the murmurings of the bishop’s detractors, we shall not undertake to discuss here who is the genuine ruler of the Zavolzhie region—the reverend Mitrofanii, the governor Anton Antonovich, the governor’s most learned advisers, or even, perhaps, the governor’s wife, Ludmila Platonovna—because it is not for us to judge such things. Let us merely say that His Grace has far more allies and admirers in Zavolzhie than enemies.
Recently, however, certain events had encouraged and emboldened the latter, thereby giving Mitrofanii particular reasons for his insomnia, in addition to those related to the frenzied trilling of the cicadas. This was the reason for the frown that pleated his high forehead into three folds and knitted his thick black brows together.
The Bishop of Zavolzhsk was fair of face, not merely good-looking but strikingly handsome, so that instead of being a pastor, he might easily have been some Old Russian prince or Byzantine archistrategus. His hair was long and gray, but his beard, also long and silky, was still half black as yet, and there was not so much as a single silver thread in his mustache. His glance was keen, but generally gentle and clear, which made it all the more frightening when it clouded over with anger and flashed with lightning. At such terrible moments the stern creases over his cheekbones were more pronounced, as was the aquiline curve of his large, noble nose. The reverend bishop’s deep, resonant voice with its rumble of thunder was equally well suited for a cordial private conversation, an inspired sermon, or a civic speech on one of the occasions when he attended the Holy Synod.
In his young days, Mitrofanii had been an adherent of asceticism. He used to wear a cassock made of sackcloth, mortify the flesh by constant fasting, and even, so they say, wear chains of cast iron beneath his undershirt, but he had long since abandoned these austerities, having come to regard them as vain, immaterial, and even harmful to a genuine love of God. Having reached the age of maturity and attained wisdom, he became more considerate of his own flesh and that of others, and for his everyday vestments his preference lay in cassocks of fine cloth, blue or black. And on occasion, when the authority of his bishop’s title required it, he would robe himself in a mantle of extremely precious purple velvet, order a team of six horses to be harnessed to the bishop’s formal carriage, and insist that there must be two stately lay brothers with thick beards standing on the runningboards, wearing green cassocks trimmed with galloons that looked very much like livery.
Of course, there were those who surreptitiously reproached His Grace for his sybaritic habits and devotion to grand style, but even they did not condemn him too harshly, remaining mindful of the exalted origins that had accustomed Mitrofanii to luxury from his childhood, so that he did not regard it as being in any way important—“he did not deign to notice it,” as his clerk, Father Serafim Userdov, put it.
His Grace the Bishop of Zavolzhsk was born into a family of courtly nobles and graduated from the Corps of Pages, from where he moved to the Horse Guards (that was back in the reign of Nikolai Pavlovich). He led the life usual for a young man of his circle, and if he was distinguished in any way from his peers, it was perhaps only by a tendency to philosophize, but then that is not such a very rare thing among educated and sensitive youths. In his regiment the “philosopher” was considered a good comrade and an excellent cavalryman, his superiors liked him and they promoted him, so that by the age of thirty he would certainly have risen to the rank of colonel had the Crimean campaign not intervened. God only knows what insights were revealed to the future Bishop of Zavolzhsk during his first taste of active combat, a cavalry skirmish near Balaclava, but after recovering from his saber wound, he had no wish to take a weapon into his hand ever again. He retired from the army, said his farewells to his family, and soon thereafter was serving his novitiate in one of the country’s most isolated monasteries. Even now, however, especially when Mitrofanii conducted the service in the cathedral on the occasion of one of the twelve great feasts or took the chair at a meeting of the consistory, it was easy to imagine how he used to command his lancers in his booming voice: “Squadron, sabers at the ready! At a trot, forward!”
An extraordinary man will make his mark in any field of endeavor, and Mitrofanii did not languish in the obscurity of remote monastic life for long. Just as he had previously become the youngest squadron commander in the entire light cavalry, so now it fell to him to become the youngest Orthodox bishop. Initially appointed to be suffragan bishop here in Zavolzhsk, and then as the pastor of the province, he demonstrated so much wisdom and zeal that he was soon summoned to the capital to take up a high position in the church. There were many who predicted that in the none too distant future Mitrofanii would don the black veil of a metropolitan, but he astonished everyone by once again turning off the beaten track and requesting out of the blue to be allowed to return to us in the back of beyond, and, following long attempts to dissuade him, to the joy of us Zavolzhians he was released with a blessing, never again to abandon his modest see, so remote from the capital.
And what does it matter if it is remote? It is a well-known fact that the farther one travels from the capital, the nearer one approaches to God. And our exalted and far-seeing capital will reach out a thousand miles should such an idea ever come into its head.
It was indeed due to precisely such an idea that His Grace was not sleeping on this night, but attending drearily and without pleasure to the endless crescendos of the cicadas. The capital’s idea possessed a face and a name, it was called Synodical Inspector Bubentsov, and as he pondered how to deal with this gentleman, the reverend bishop turned for the hundredth time from one side to the other on his soft duck-down mattress, groaning and sighing and occasionally gasping.
The bed in the bishop’s bedchamber was special, an old four-poster from Empress Elizabeth’s time, with a canopy representing a starry sky. During the period of Mitrofanii’s aforementioned enthusiasm for asceticism, he slept quite contentedly on either straw or bare boards until he came to the conclusion that to mortify the flesh was pointless folly and that was not why the Lord had molded it in His own image and likeness, nor was it appropriate for the arch-pastor to make a show of himself to the clergy in his care, compelling them to adopt a self-tormenting severity for which some do not feel any spiritual inclination—nor indeed are they obliged to do so according to the statute of the church. As he reached his years of maturity, His Grace inclined more and more to the opinion that genuine trials are sent down to us not in the realm of the physiological but in the realm of the spiritual, and the scourging of the body by no means always leads to the salvation of the soul. Therefore the bishop’s chambers were furnished no worse than the governor’s house, the board set in the refectory was incomparably superior, and the orchard of apple trees was the finest in all the town, with arbors, rotundas, and even a fountain. It was peaceful and shady there, inclining one to thought, and so let the detractors whisper among themselves—one can never silence malicious gossip.
So the way to deal with this perfidious inspector Bubentsov is this, the reverend bishop concluded. The first thing is to write to Konstantin Petrovich in St. Petersburg about all the tricks that his trusted nuncio gets up to and the disaster that the church could suffer as a result of them. The chief procurator was a man of intelligence; it was possible that he might heed the warning. But action should not be limited to a letter; Mitrofanii must also summon the governor’s wife, Ludmila Platonovna, for a talk, to shame her and stir her conscience. She was a good, honest woman. She must be brought to her senses.
And then everything would be put to rights. The matter could hardly be simpler.
But even now that his heart felt eased, sleep still would not come, and the problem did not lie in the round-faced moon, or even in the cicadas.
Knowing his own character as he did and being in the habit of analyzing the workings of its mechanism in detail, down to the last nut and bolt, Mitrofanii set about trying to identify the worm that was gnawing at him and preventing his reason from shrouding itself in the veil of sleep. What was the cause?
Could it possibly be his recent conversation with a giddy young novice from a noble family who had been denied permission to take the veil? The reverend bishop had not beaten about the bush; he had blurted out his opinion without equivocation: “My daughter, what you need is not the Sweet Bridegroom of Heaven—that is merely your delusion. What you need is a perfectly ordinary bridegroom, a state official or, even better, an officer. With a mustache.” He ought not to have put it like that, of course. There had been hysterics, followed by a long, exhausting argument. But never mind that, it was unimportant. What else was there?
He had been obliged to take a disagreeable decision concerning the steward at the Monastery of the Epiphany. For riotous drunken behavior and the lecherous visiting of indecorous women, the offender had been condemned to dismissal from the cloister and returned to his original lay status. Now the scribbling would begin, with letters to His Grace himself and to the synod. But this too was an ordinary matter; the root cause of his alarm did not lie here.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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In Zavolzhsk, far from the home of the Tsar, Bishop Mitrofannii rules over the vast scarcely populated remote region instead of Governor von Haggenau. The Bishop has earned a reputation for solving unsolved mysteries, which he takes pride in accomplishing though he also knows who actually uncovers the truth. Now his elderly late Aunt Marya Tatischeva sends him a letter asking for his help as someone poisoned Zagulyai and Zadidai with the former dying in agony and the latter barely surviving. He decides to send his secret sleuth literature and gymnastics teacher Sister Pelagia to learn what happened and why to the white bulldogs. Sister Pelagia travels to the home of Marya to investigate the canine homicide. Sister Pelagia quickly concludes that the target is the elderly woman, who is known for treating her dogs like pampered babies, but what the nun believes is the motive leads to several avaricious souls. However, other dogs are killed and the case takes a twist when two males are recovered from the nearby river with their heads removed. The Bishop directs Sister Pelagia to investigate the murders regardless of where it takes her, as he expects everyone to live morally and piously correct though he has some doubts with her switching identities from clumsy reticent nun to vibrant nimble Polina Lisitsina. --- In some ways this is more a nineteenth century historical thriller than a mystery. SISTER PELAGIA AND THE WHITE BULLDOG is a superior whodunit that uses the backdrop to paint a vivid picture of a remote part of Tsarist Russia. Readers will have to adapt to the names of the key characters, but will find it worth the time as the descriptions are terrific and the cast powerful especially the Sister and the Bishop, as irony and humor augment a fabulous story line. --- Harriet Klausner