The Reading Canary: a ReminderSeries 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 BulldogThe 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.