Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Historical novels can give an interesting perspective on a particular place and time. That’s especially true when they provide a deeper look at one part of a society (or, perhaps, a few). That’s the case with Boris Akunin’s Sister Pelagia series, so let’s turn today’s spotlight on Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, the first of those novels.
This novel takes place at the end of the 19th Century, before the major societal and other changes that would take place just a few decades later. His Grace Mitrofanii, Bishop of Zavolzhsk, receives a letter from his great-aunt, Marya Afansievna Tatischeva. In it, she tells him that some member of her household or inner circle has poisoned two of her prize (and much beloved) white bulldogs. She wants to find out who that person is, and asks the bishop to investigate. At first, he thinks it’s likely just the baseless fears of an old woman. But his conscience won’t let him rest, so he sends Sister Pelagia in his stead. Her mission will be to go to the town of Drozdovka and find out what happened to the dogs. Pelagia agrees (after all, she’s been given an order by a superior), and prepares for her journey.
In the meantime, His Grace has another problem on his hands. Two unknown male bodies have been pulled from a river. They can’t be identified, since their heads are missing, so no-one even knows who the victims are, at least at first. There’s talk that members of a pagan group called the Zyts are responsible; and, even though many of the local authorities (including the bishop) don’t believe it, that talk spreads. And if the Zyts weren’t responsible, who was? Who would want to kill those people?
Pelagia has been told to investigate the matter of the bulldogs, so she goes to Drozdovka, where she’s welcomed by Marya Afansievna, and settles in as her guest. Soon enough, she meets her hostess’ grandchildren, her housekeeper, and the other members of her close circle. And it’s not long at all before Pelagia learns just how much tension there is in the household. There are romantic rivalries, money rivalries, and more. Then comes another tragedy. Marya Afansievna’s last two white bulldogs die, sending her on a downward spiral that nearly kills her. At this, it seems clear that someone wants to kill the old woman. So Pelagia digs more deeply, and finds that nearly everyone she’s met could have had a motive for murder. In fact, she refers to the household as ‘a nest of vipers.’
In the end, and after two more murders (of people), Pelagia discovers a link between the two men’s bodies, and the murders at Drozdovka. As it turns out, these killings are all linked to one original motive.
Sister Pelagia and His Grace are, of course, Russian Orthodox. So this novel has a strong element of that religion. As the novel goes on, we see just how much influence the Orthodox Church has in Russia at that time. Members of the religious orders are treated with great courtesy, and Orthodox worship is woven into everyday life for many people. That’s especially true in smaller places such as Drozdovka and Zavolzhsk.
And that smaller-town life is also an important element in the novel. The locals have their own ways of life and traditions, and one’s expected to conform to them. People know each other, and prefer to stick to the more traditional lifestyle. At the same time, intellectuals, artists and musicians from larger cities such as St. Petersburg are considered far more ‘cultured’ and fashionable. There is, in fact, an interesting look at that distinction between more urbane ways of thinking, and the more unsophisticated life of the small town and village. At the same time as the villagers admire people from the big cities, they’re suspicious of their ‘loose morals’ and ‘ungodly ways.’
Sister Pelagia is the protagonist of the series, and quite a lot of the story is told from her point of view (third person, past tense). So we get to learn a bit about her character. On one level, she’s quiet, obedient (to her clerical superiors), and uncomfortable with modern fashion, ribald remarks, and so on. On the other, she’s quick-thinking, observant, and shrewd. She makes mistakes, but she’s a solid judge of character. More than once, she’s able to get out of a situation by thinking fast.
In some ways, this novel is a traditional mystery. There’s the sleuth, a cast of dubious suspects (none of whom is really likeable), and a whodunit sort of mystery. Readers who enjoy matching wits with the author will appreciate this. Because it’s that sort of novel, and because it’s a novel set in the late 19th Century, there’s also a bare minimum of profanity. Readers who dislike that sort of language will appreciate that.
The novel is not told in strict chronological order. For example, there’s a scene in which Sister Pelagia is asked to go to Drozdovka. Then, the author pauses, if I may put it that way, to give some background on some of the other characters, only coming back a bit later to continue with Pelagia’s story. Readers who prefer a linear, chronological sort of story will notice this. In some ways, the story is almost literary in style, with narrative description and character details, which will appeal to readers who prefer stories without a ‘thriller like’ pace.
There is violence in the novel, and some of it is brutal. Animal lovers will also want to know that harm does come to some of Marya Afansievna’s dogs. But that said, the violence is not drawn out. And I can say without spoiling the novel that it isn’t gratuitous.
One more thing is worth noting. Every author adds unique touches to stories, and has unique writing quirks, if that’s the term. This novel begins and ends with ellipses.
Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog is a leisurely-paced look at life in rural Russia during the last decades of the Czars. It’s a traditional-style whodunit with a suitably suspicious cast of suspects and a sleuth who has some very clever ways of getting to the truth. But what’s your view? Have you read Sister Pelagia and the White Bull? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 19 September/Tuesday, 20 September – In the Bleak Midwinter – Julia Spencer Fleming
Monday, 26 September/Tuesday, 27 September – Happiness is Easy – Edney Silvestre
Monday, 3 October/Tuesday, 4 October – The Good Boy – Teresa Schwegel