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Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog: A Mystery (Mortalis) Kindle Edition

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Length: 290 pages
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Editorial Reviews

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.)
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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.

Product Details

  • File Size: 520 KB
  • Print Length: 290 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0812975138
  • Publisher: Random House (January 30, 2007)
  • Publication Date: January 30, 2007
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000NJL7IM
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #591,402 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By K. M. VINE VOICE on February 7, 2007
Format: Paperback
and it's all thanks to "Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog." I haven't read (yet) Akunin's four Detective Fandorin books available in English, but I will -- while I'm eagerly awaiting release of the next in the Sister Pelagia series, "Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk."

Akunin's new, late nineteenth century protagonist is a young, sometimes clumsy, freckled and bespectacled Russian Orthodox Bride of Christ who, we learn as we read, has already solved a few criminal mysteries at the behest of her bishop, the formidable, sometimes bombastic and contradictory, but wise Mitrofanii. This time, she tackles the mystery of who is poisoning specially bred bulldogs with distinctive pelt markings and especially slobbery jowls. At least, that is her initial assignment, but Pelagia soon stumbles upon a sequence of heinous human murders and must discover how everything fits together before she ends up a corpse too.

The narrator of "Sister Pelagia" is unnamed and "hovers" wherever the author chooses. One gets the impression this is an omniscient denizen of the province's humble capital town, Zavolzhsk. In the first third/half of the book, this narrator provides an abundance -- one can claim overabundance! -- of background information on the various, colorful, sometimes blackly comical, sometimes broodingly base, sometimes just plain demented individuals who people Zavolzhsk and the bishop's aunt's country estate. All this familiarization hinders the tale's flow for a time. But once Pelagia solves the first mystery, the novel swings into high gear plot-wise. The suspense is supreme when she must fight for her life, first on land, then in water. And the courtroom scenes provide a satisfying finale to the complex mysteries Akunin devised.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Frank J. Konopka VINE VOICE on February 13, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In the midst of writing mysteries about detective Erast Fandorin, the author has also begun a new series. This one concerns a nun named Sister Pelagia, who is sent out by her Bishop to help solve mysteries and murders in a backward province of Imperial Russia. The action is fast, the plot never wavers, and the characters are all well-srawn. One interesting quirk to this story is that, when it is required, Sister Pelagia assumes the identity of her "sister", a widow who dresses and acts exactly as would an upper class member of the Russian nobility. I found the premise of this book fascinating, and the characters of both the good sister and her boss the bishop very believeable, therefore I am awaiting anxiously the next book in this marvelous series.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on May 29, 2007
Format: Paperback
Boris Akunin is a well-regarded Russian author of suspense fiction, heretofore known for his Fandorin series, which concerns a part-James Bond, part-Hercules Poirot creation who nonetheless is strikingly original. SISTER PELAGIA AND THE WHITE BULLDOG marks the beginning of a new direction for Akunin and fittingly introduces Mortalis, a new imprint of literary mystery and suspense fiction for Random House.

We quickly learn from the unnamed, omnipresent narrator that Sister Pelagia is a sleuth in nun's habit, wishing to devote her life to God yet feeling stifled by the requirements of the order and by the role of women in early 20th century Russia. In addition, she is quite adept at solving mysteries, a skill that she hides from all except her supervisory bishop, who keeps her abilities a secret not only to preserve the good sister's customary role but also to keep her in reserve as a secret weapon in the political skirmishes that were the hallmark of the time.

The bishop generally has his hands full, what with an inspector from the Holy Synod coming to meddle in local affairs, the gruesome discovery of two decapitated bodies, and the bishop's aunt being in a terrible state as a result of the baffling death of one of her white bulldogs, a special breed that she and her late husband had nurtured through generations. The perpetrator of the canine murder is quickly determined, even if the motive isn't, and the unforeseen nexus that connects this and other events is slowly but surely sorted out in a climactic courtroom scene in which the good sister has a starring role.

It should be noted that Russian literature tends to be the antithesis of, say, a James Patterson work --- why use one word when pages will do?
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on March 29, 2007
Format: Paperback
The Sister Pelagia mystery series may not be as effortless a read to take in as Erast Fandorin, but it's well worth the effort. While the White Bulldog may be have a plot that is slightly less dynamic than the one Fandorin fans are used to, it is a refreshing change of pace. The language is beautiful, the characters are engaging and the sleuth and her posse (bishop Mitrofani and Berdichervsky) are at least as charismatic as Fandorin and Masa.

The series (there are only three novels in it) picks up the pace in The Black Monk and positively goes berserk in the Red Rooster, but the provincial charm of the White Bulldog is very enjoyable too.

Most Russian fans of Akunin consider the Pelagia trilogy to be a more workmanlike and even series than Fandorin, which has its peaks and valleys.
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Most Fandorin fans tend to think that the Pelagia trilogy (there are two more books to come) is actually Akunin's best project. The first novel's narrative is a little laid back, yes, but it is still amazingly well written. Highly recommended for the lovers of entertaining literary play (which is... Read More
Jan 12, 2007 by Amazon Customer |  See all 2 posts
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