We are lucky to have translations of the works of the Russian writer Boris Akunin, In this whodunit, he transports the reader to the remote nineteenth century province of Zavolzhie. His engaging narrative is presented as a tale, written with humor and with references to nineteenth century literary styles, including Chekhov inspired drawing room scenes.
Akumin gives us two memorable characters, the humane and intelligent Bishop Mitrofanii and Pelagia, the young redheaded nun under his charge. Over time, the populous and minions of government of Zavolzhie have begun to defer to Mitrofanii as they recognize his superior advice. The arrival of the reactionary, ambitious, womanizing inspector for the Holy Synod, however, stirs the regions orderly waters. Under attack for not demonstrating sufficient zeal in the extermination of alien creeds and the propagation of Orthodoxy, Mitrofaniis power is challenged when the bodies of two headless victims are discovered and the inspector fingers the barely Christianized local Zyts as the culprits. When more murders occur, first of prized white Russian bulldogs and then of three prominent Zavolzhie members, the bishop turns to Pelagia for help. Mitrofanii acknowledges that this seemingly meek and mild nun is the genuine expert in the field of unraveling obscure secrets and piercing through false appearances. Pelagia reluctantly turns investigator, armed with only with her knitting needles, and sometimes in disguise as an elegant visitor from Moscow. Naturally, her unassuming insights finally uncover the culprit.
The books description of Russia landscape and the ordinary Russian life of poverty, drunkenness, ignorance, arbitrary rule, and brigands on the roads is first rate. There are extensive details of the complex use of bribes, the workings of the legal system, and the growing strength of practices considered atheistic and exotic, such as the reading of prohibited newspapers, free discussion of parliamentarians, lingering beliefs of the Old Believers, and forced baptism of thousands of Bashkirs.
This is the first of four Sister Pelagia mysteries. Translations of the rest are coming soon.