Reading Canary: The Curious Incident of the Nun In Nineteenth-Century Russia

by Arthur B

Arthur B investigates the Sister Pelagia novels by Boris Akunin.

The Reading Canary: a Reminder

Series of novels - especially in fantasy and SF fiction, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well - have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.

A Literary "What If?"

What if Tolstoy, or Gogol, or Dostoyevsky were caught short for the rent one month, and had to write a quick detective novel in the vein of Arthur Conan Doyle or (more closely) Agatha Christie in order to pay the bills? The product would probably closely resemble the Sister Pelagia trilogy by Boris Akunin, a series of detective novels in a very traditional style which nonetheless incorporate frequent references - in prose style, events, techniques and images - to the giants of 19th Century Russian literature.

Sister Pelagia is an Orthodox nun who lives in the fictional province of Zavolzhsk, a clumsy woman who in theory wishes only to retire from the world and live out her life in service to God. However, her superior Bishop Mitrofanii frequently requires her help to solve various mysteries, which the people of his diocese expect him to solve. The upshot is, usually, a middle-of-the-road detective story with an interesting setting, with frequent references for Russian literature fans to get giddy over and the occasional stab at making a political statement, a formula which usually works fine but doesn't make for repeated reading.

Pelagia and the White Bulldog

The opening book of the trilogy finds Pelagia sent to help Mitrofanii's elderly aunt, whose prize bulldogs have been poisoned for reasons unknown. Before long, even greater mysteries come to light, as two headless corpses are fished out of the river. Meanwhile, the sinister synodical inspector Bubentsov has been sent from the capital to find out why Mintrofanii hasn't been pursecuting the non-Orthodox to a sufficient extent, and seizes on these sinister events in order to start a full-blown witch-hunt and purge of the native Zyts.

Very much a traditional "unlikely detective" novel in the mould of Christie's Miss Marple or Chesterton's Father Brown, Pelagia and the White Bulldog proceeds according to the time-honoured formula. Plot twists ensue, the mystery is neatly wrapped up, and in the final chapter the appearance of a bleeding monk heralds a cliffhanger, leading into the second book. Each step in the formula is carefully adhered to and executed competently, albeit with sometimes overwrought prose.

Ah yes, the prose. Initially I was hostile towards this book, because I could recognise the style as being a pastiche of various 19th Century Russian authors, until I realised it was supposed to be a deliberate pastiche, and although it sometimes weighs the prose down this style does manage to retain my interest for longer than it otherwise would have. By far the most unusual feature in the book is the intermission in which we are presented with a series of three socratic dialogues between Bishop Mitrofanii and the local Governor on the governance of Russia and the provinces, and the problem of bringing the rule of law to a country more used to organised crime and brutal dictatorship. The book was published in 2000 in Russia, at the beginning of Vladimir Putin's leadership, and the need for national transformation following the gangster capitalism of the Yeltsin era seems to have been paramount in Akunin's mind; it is interesting to see where in some respects Putin's agenda has followed Akunin's hopes, and in other respects it has confounded them. This brief interlude is not sufficient to make this book anything more than what it is, a simple detective story, and I don't intend to reread this one, but it's worth picking up second-hand to flick through once. On the other hand, having read one Pelagia, I don't feel especially inclined to read the others; Tolstoy-as-crime-author is an interesting enough experiment for one book, but for a trilogy? That's asking too much.

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 10:41 on 2008-02-19
Such a cool concept though! You know, I can't really get on with detective fiction. Either I guess what's happening, in which case I get bored, or I don't in which case I feel cheated. Interesting quirky detectives can help for a bit (and I like the idea of a 19th century Russian nun I must admit) but ultimately it's not a genre that holds my attention.
Jamie Johnston at 20:36 on 2008-02-27
Well, that's the central problem of the whole genre, isn't it? The writer has to give us precisely the amount of information necessary for us to be unable to solve the mystery ourselves but to feel, once we are told the solution, that all the clues were there and of course now it all makes sense. And, given that some people are better than others at that sort of puzzle, that must be very difficult to achieve for any sizable audience.

Even so, one gets the impression that a lot of writers don't even bother: I can't count the number of rubbish television whodunnits I've seen in which the writer neutralizes the risk of anyone guessing who dunnit by having the culprit turn out to be some complete non-entity who's said barely ten words in the entire programme and has a totally unfathomable motive that no one would ever have considered possible. Which merely makes one wonder what the point of the preceding 50 minutes has been, since it turns out that none of it had anything to do with the true solution of the mystery.

Perhaps that's why many of the most successful detective stories are those that make it perfectly plain from the outset that the mystery is so fiendish that you will never guess it and only the almost superhuman intelligence of the hero can solve it, Sherlock Holmes being the classic example. Then the interest doesn't really lie in finding out who did it at all but in seeing how the detective solves it. I suppose in a way the CSI franchise runs on the same track: you simply don't expect to be able to solve it yourself because the clues only make sense if you cut small pieces out of them and put them into whizzy machines that make them go purple.

As so often I find myself hijacking a review of something I haven't read with my general ponderings. Sorry Arthur!
Arthur B at 14:05 on 2008-02-28
As so often I find myself hijacking a review of something I haven't read with my general ponderings. Sorry Arthur!

Pssh, I don't mind. Discussion is good.
Wardog at 16:13 on 2008-02-29
I think it's Dan's mum who has essentially nailed the problem with TV mysteries: very often the key to finding the killer is simply establishing the person who has no other reason to be there. I think the problem is, when you're thinking up a mystery, you tend to think of first the victim and then the killer and then everybody else and while you go to a lot of trouble to establish roles and movitations and alibis and so forth for everybody else you forget to do the same for the killer because you've already marked them in your head as the killer and, therefore, requiring no further illumination.

Dan and I are going through a bit of a phase of bad quality crime shows - Criminal Minds is all about catching serial killers but, again, it's about the process not about the mystery if that makes sense (like CSI I guess, but I've never watched it). Although once you get used to the formula you do get to do a fair degree of armchair profiling which is fun. One of the reasons I had such trouble getting into House, actually, was because it works along very similar principles to a dective of crime show except because the illnesses were all so obscure you couldn't play armchair detective/doctor.
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