Thursday, December 28, 2006
Review: Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog
Title: Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog
Author: Boris Akunin
Publisher: Random House
# of Pages: 288
Favorite Line: "You often hear people say ... that life is a precious gift from God. But it seems to me that it is not a gift at all, for a gift is intended to bring only pleasure to the heart and the body, while the life of mortal men contains little that is pleasurable. Bodily and spiritual torment, sin and vice, the loss of loved ones- that is our life. ... life should not be understood as a gift, but as a work of penance."
From Publishers Weekly Starred Review. Set in the late 19th century, this charming, highly unusual whodunit from Russian author Akunin (the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili) introduces Sister Pelagia, a young nun in a remote Russian province far removed from the intrigue of the czarist government. Pelagia's bishop, who has discreetly and successfully employed her deductive skills before, calls on her when an uncommon white bulldog belonging to his aunt is poisoned. After the nun's arrival on the scene, the two remaining dogs in the breeding line turn up dead, leading Pelagia to suspect the killings are actually an indirect attempt to murder their wealthy mistress, whose devotion to the animals is legendary. Akunin's gently humorous omniscient narrative voice distinguishes this novel from other historical mysteries. Even admirers of Akunin's Erast Petrovich Fandorin series (The Death of Achilles, etc.) will appreciate the author's switch to another, even more memorable sleuth. (Jan.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
This book was fun to read. I have a weakness for Russian literature- though usually of the angst-written, Crime and Punishment type. This was not angst-written at all. The narrator is not involved in the action at all, but is a fun, subtly teasing presence throughout the novel. The main sleuth, Sister Pelagia, is a cheerful and somewhat clumsy protagonist who will not bore you. The mystery of the white bulldogs is actually solved within the first half of the book (and by a fairly dull means)- it's the underlying mystery of why that takes up the second half of the novel. And that storyline is complex and solved in a much more satisfying manner.
For me, the difficulties of Russian novels are the character names. Everyone seems to be given at least three names at birth, and are referred to by any of the three names on their own or in a combination thereof. Or, just to add to the confusion, they are given nicknames and are referred to by those as well. Different nicknames by different people. It became very confusing to me- I felt like there was a cast of thousands when really, there probably weren't much more than a dozen characters. Also, Akunin spent a great deal of time describing secondary characters in detail near the beginning, so that one approached the story thinking they were very important. And then they seemed to have no more than a glancing influence on the narrative overall.
That was the main problem for me- the story ends in a courtroom drama worthy of CourtTV but which, in my opinion, was drawn out a bit too far. There were also random sermons from a bishop about God and duty (see quote above) that I didn't much care for.
Overall, the book was enjoyable. I think I would prefer if it had a listing of characters at the beginning so that I could see who was who- perhaps, going forward in this series, the characters will become more familiar to me and will not cause as much trouble. I'm certainly interested enough to look into the next book in the series!