Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog is a fun romp, a book in the clergy-detective genre, set in 19th Century Russia and featuring the Orthodox nun, Pelagia, and her spiritual father, Bishop Mitrofanii. The conceit of the books is that Pelagia solves the mysteries, but the public credits them to Bishop Mitrofanii and assumes his demurrals to be humility. Russian author Boris Akunin admits in an interview that he is offering homage to G.K. Chesterton and Father Brown.
Rather than confirming the sexism of the assumed-male crime-solver, the character of Pelagia subverts people’s expectations and she is able to operate “under the radar;” she is a bit of a trickster. She can masquerade as a high society lady or stab would-be kidnappers with her knitting needles. In the climactic murder trial, she outsmarts Bishop Mitrofanii himself with her testimony (but the public assumes it was on his orders). Author Akunin admits he chose a nun as his protagonist because he can’t write sex scenes!
Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog maintains the feel of a quintessential Russian novel (I hardly feel qualified to write that!). Akunin upholds the traditions of his literary forebearers while poking fun at them, slyly teasing the reader with his deliberate allusions. The townspeople and their connections are intimately described (with patronymics and diminutives); there are policemen and intellectuals and all types of characters from refined and provincial society. One character writes poetry and quotes himself in social gatherings (and misquotes Pushkin); the bishop and the governor discuss Crime and Punishment (his Grace thinks it overrated); and a discussion on bribery in town calls to mind Gogol’s Borzoi puppies —a reference, I’ll admit, that I had to look up.
The inversion of the main plot with the subplot was unexpected and brilliant. Sister Pelagia identifies the perpetrator who killed the titular bulldogs halfway through the book, although she doesn’t discern motive; this mystery then takes a backseat to the true plot. A big-city villain with a history of duels and womanizing pretends to be reformed. He is determined to cast Bishop Mitrofanii’s remote province as not zealously enough Orthodox in order to advance his own career. If he succeeds, both the governor and Bishop Mitrofanii will be disgraced – but more: the entire province will be slandered from Moscow to St. Petersburg and throughout all of Russia. The very character of the province itself, and all the good people described therein, is at stake.
The second person plural narrator describes the harrowing events which follow Pelagia’s discovery of the dog-killer as a “denouement” (this is the author’s humor): a scandalous photography exhibit displays a female nude with her face obscured–but her features are not obscured enough, and both the gentlewoman’s spurned lover and her brother fight the photographer. That night, he is murdered and his photos and photographic plates destroyed. It is up to Sister Pelagia to piece together innocent and guilty, and how this scandal relates to the poor dead bulldogs. The murderer, obscured by darkness, fights Pelagia and she falls into the river and is soon fighting for her life in earnest.
The book also serves as a slice-of-life of a culture saturated in Orthodox Christianity. As characters’ backstories are disclosed, several characters are described as, in due time, taking Bishop Mitrofanii as their confessor, an indication of the respect the locals have for him. Although the prosecutor and the governor’s wife do not care for one another, “on Forgiveness Sunday both parties would always confess to each other and forgive each other wholeheartedly–which did absolutely nothing to prevent the rivalry from continuing after Easter” (31). The photography exhibit, not yet revealed as scandalous, is scheduled for the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist, and the narrator reminds: “which, as everyone knows, the observance of a strict fast is prescribed.” The text continues: “In this alone a certain defiance of the proprieties could already be discerned” (155). Pelagia’s prayers in distress are thoroughly Orthodox: Most Holy Mother of God, preserve me from my enemies visible and invisible. . . (125). Humor again: her would-be kidnapper has covered her head with a sack.
Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili. He started his career as an editor and translator, and started writing mysteries to give Russian literature “a literary project that would unite first-rate storytelling with popular narrative” (269). No doubt I missed many of his literary allusions and humorous references. No matter. If you’ve struggled with Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy as I have, Sister Pelagia is a readable introduction to Russian literature.
Akunin, Boris. Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog. Translated by Andrew Bromfield. New York: Random House. 2006, 2007.
Chkhartishvili, the man himself, is an anti-Putin protestor and Russian expat. He is more famous for his Fandorin mysteries. Recently, he started writing a history of Russia.
Articles about Akunin/Chkhartishvili
“Boris Akunin: the Evolution of Russia’s Dissident Detective Novelist into a Master Historian” Article by Howard Amos. The Calvert Journal. February 5, 2018.
Boris Akunin: Russia’s Dissident Detective Novelist. Article by Sally McGrane. The New Yorker. July 27, 2012.
 “I take bribes. . . But only pedigree puppies. Borzoi puppies. And they count as a gift.” Nikolai Gogol. The Government Inspector. Play. (also known as The Inspector General.)