In The Spotlight: Boris Akunin’s Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog

SpotlightHello, All,

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


Filed under Boris Akunin, Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog

34 responses to “In The Spotlight: Boris Akunin’s Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog

  1. This sounds really interesting. I am attracted to books that paint a true picture of the times and place. Of course murders are always a plus, right?

    • Well, see, now, that’s what I always say, Lesley! Guess it’s the crime writer in me… And Akunin has, I think, ‘done his homework’ about pre-Revolution Russia. The book certainly has that atmosphere.

  2. I love this series – it’s got something of the leisurely pace of Tolstoy novels, which I suppose is exactly what the author was aiming for. But of course, with the added bonus of murders and investigations!

    • You know, Marina Sofia, I couldn’t have expressed that better myself. These books are reminiscent of Tolstoy in their pace. But, as you say, there are murders and investigations woven in, too. And such a good look at the times, I think.

  3. Sounds great to me Margot 😆 I do have one of his in the loft, somewhere … Thanks!

  4. I was not aware of this series, Margot. It does sound interesting, although not so sure about the violence and violence related to animals.

    • Admittedly, Tracy, I can see how those aspects of the novel could give a reader pause. So I completely understand your hesitation. It is an interesting series, though, I think. If you do try any of the books, I hope you’ll be glad you did.

  5. Hmm… I’m afriad the dead dog scenario would put me off. It always worries me a little that I can cope with any number of (fictional) human murders, but one fictional dead pet will upset me for days… 😉

    • I know just what you mean, FictionFan! I must confess, I wasn’t so keen on that aspect of it at all, myself. And neither were my canine overlords. But that said, I should note that the those scenes are not drawn-out, overly brutal, etc.. Still, definitely potentially upsetting for dog lovers.

  6. Col

    Nothing from him on my shelves, there’s probably a fair few other authors I’d be more interested in reading first.

  7. Tea

    Boy, lately a lot of “heads” go missing in the literature I encounter. I say this while choking a swallow.

  8. I read this novel in 2006 when the translation first came out, and you’re right, it is ‘literary’, and also quite different in tone to novels I usually read (I don’t read many novels by Russian authors!). I found it interesting for its setting, unusual protagonist and for the writing style. I’m also intrigued by the art of translation, beautifully done in this case by Andrew Bromfield. He’s interesting in himself, having translated many books from Russian to English, including 10 of Akunin’s. Bromfield has this to say about translating: “After the effort of coming up with appropriate equivalents for the elements of style required to convey a modern author’s voice and intonation, what I am eventually left with is a whole range of points that require special decisions — like cultural references that are entirely foreign and require explanation or sub-textual assumptions of shared experiences that don’t extend from Moscow as far as London (not to mention New York). That’s where the ultimate difficulties arise, in deciding which solution to adopt — ignore, modify, omit or substitute.” In 2007, Bromfield was embroiled in controversy over the translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace:

    • Oh, that is absolutely fascinating, Caron! Than you for sharing that article. Folks, do check it out. I agree that the translation is very well done, and I appreciate your making that point, as I didn’t in the post. You’re right, too, about the literary quality of the writing, and about the unusual protagonist. It’s definitely not your ‘cookie cutter’ sort of novel, is it?

  9. Sounds like an intriguing read, but I’m not sure I can handle the dogs being killed. I know, that sounds crazy, considering I read about people being killed all the time. I’m just tender-hearted when it comes to animals. I’ll have to check on other books in the series. Thanks for the introduction to another unknown author to me.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • You’re not alone, Mason. Many, many readers who read crime fiction are the same way. It’s one thing to have a human character (oar even several) killed. It’s another altogether when it’s an animal.

  10. I will look for this one. THanks for calling it to my attention.

  11. Well, whatever others merits the novel might have, it wins hands down for the title. Who can resist it! This is an area in which I think authors, editors, and publishers too often miss the mark. The title is the baited hook. It must catch the fish! This one snags me!

    • You have a well-taken point, Tim, about the title. It’s attention-getting and innovative, so yes, hard to resist. And it reflects the story, too. As you say, titles matter!

  12. Nuns in a crime story – sounds good to me. And being Russian Orthodox adds even more interest.

    • I thought you might be interested in the nun aspect, Moira. And I thought the Russian Orthodox element was especially interesting – and done well, too, in my opinion.

  13. What a fascinating sounding book Margot – for some reason I’ve read lots of reviews set in Russia over the last few days (or maybe I’m just noticing them more) I particularly like the historical angle of this one, certainly one I will bear in mind.

  14. I’ve never read a novel set during this time period in Russia, not that I can remember anyway!

  15. Even though I enjoyed your overview, as always, I think I’ll skip this one. On a different note, to help with your new release would you like to come on the blog and discuss the research behind the series? I’ve never done a post about video surveillance and I think my audience would really enjoy it. But you could also include another topic, as well.

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