A Mystery-Solving Orthodox Nun [Book Review of SISTER PELAGIA AND THE WHITE BULLDOG]

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 [1]—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, author photo from Random House/Penguin Books.

“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.



[1] “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.)


Looking For Faith Amid Buried Bones

Faith: it’s a recurring theme in Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway Mysteries.

Forensic anthropologist / archaeologist Ruth Galloway muses upon faith in just about every installment of the series.  Detective Nelson’s Catholic faith is contrasted against her own post-Evangelical agnosticism. She sometimes envies the nontraditional beliefs of her eccentric friend Cathbad, a druid with a bit of a second sight that helps Ruth and her friends from time to time.

American culture is either hyper-religious or pretends that faith is irrelevant. Published and set in England, these books aren’t afraid to muse upon the mysteries of life and death.  She’s an archaeologist, after all, a bone-finder and bone-identifier. It’s fitting.

The end of A Dying Fall closes with a several-page account of druid funeral, just as the next installment, The Outcast Dead, opens with an ecumenical service for the unknown dead.  Sure, the whole cast of characters (except Cathbad) gawk at the exotic druid funeral like tourists, and Ruth’s mind wanders during the memorial for the unknown dead.  But these books present religion and questions about the numinous as normal, not fanatical or pathological, by no means preachy. It’s one reason, in addition to the lovable and quirky characters, that I adore series — (and overlook it’s occasional soap operatic elements.)

I’m a few years behind. I’m deliberately pacing myself. Otherwise I would binge-read and lose the enjoyment, like a child making herself sick on too much candy.

Passages like this charm and enthrall me:

“. . . She kept thinking about that figure on the riverbank. The hooded man, the monster without a face. So many stories involve the appearance of an unknown ‘other,’ the stranger whom nobody recognizes. Who is the third that walks beside you? Christ on the road to Emmaus. Poor Tom on the blasted heath. Countless fairy tales about the mysterious traveler who arrives by night. Guess my name or I will take your soul.”

death-164761_1280 hooded man pixabay

There you have it, in one paragraph: allusions to The New Testament, “The Waste Land”, King Lear, and fairy tales.  Un-self-conscious. It’s a delight to read.  Thank you, Elly Griffiths.

saltmarsh-94790_1280 pixabay

A saltmarsh in Essex, courtesy of Alan Hancock from Pixabay.                                                               A saltmarsh is the setting of Ruth Galloway’s home.

The Ruth Galloway Mysteries
1. The Crossing Places (2009
2. The Janus Stone (2010)
3. The House at Sea’s End (2011
4. A Room Full of Bones (2011
4.5 Ruth’s First Christmas Tree (2012
5. A Dying Fall (2013
6. The Outcast Dead (2014
7. The Ghost Fields (2015) 
8. The Woman in Blue (2016
9. The Chalk Pit (2017
10. The Dark Angel (2018
11. The Stone Circle (2019
12. The Lantern Men (2020
About author Elly Griffiths (from the author’s website).
I previously reviewed the author’s earlier book, The Janus Stone here

Coming to Live [Book Review]

Author Sheri Sinykin and Illustrator Kristina Swarner give us Zayde Comes To Live, a beautiful, intense, moving book!

From the second sentence, we know this will not be an easy book: “Zayde comes to live with us. It’s because he is dying. No one says this, but I know from what they do not say.”

The watercolor (?) pictures are muted and comforting.

The text is simple, direct, and uncompromising: “Sometimes I watch him sleep to make sure he wakes up again.”  The illustrations show the oxygen tube in Zayde’s nostrils.

The Christian view of Heaven and the Moslem view of Paradise are contrasted. The family’s visiting Rabbi explains the belief in Olam Ha-Bai, the World To Come.

“I see a zooming, happy Zayde with his mama and daddy, his bubbe and his own zayde, and all the aunts and uncles I never knew.”

Zayde tells her his own beliefs: “my love will stay here with you, and so will your memories. Always.”

And the granddaughter learns a measure of acceptance: “breathing in, breathing out, together, as long as we can.”

This significant picture book pulls no punches, but is full of shalom, which the text reminds us means “peace and completeness.”

Upon reflection, the reader realizes the deeper truth of the title.  It’s as the Rabbi said: “He is living . . . until the moment he dies.”

Aren’t we all.

Sinykin, Sheri and Kristina Swarner. Zayde Comes To Live. Atlanta: Peachtree, 2012.

A Midsummer Night’s Lullaby


Come, now a roundel, and a fairy song;

Then, for the third part of a minute, hence;—

Some, to kill cankers in the musk-rose buds;

Some war with rear-mice for their leathern wings,

To make my small elves coats;


and some keep back

The clamorous owl, that nightly hoots, and wonders

At our quaint spirits. Sing me now asleep;

Then to your offices, and let me rest.


You spotted snakes, with double tongue,

Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;

Newts and blind-worms, do no wrong:

Come not near our fairy queen.


Continue reading

No Faeries Here [Book Review]

Spoiler Alert: no faeries.

That’s not the only reason DeSales Harrison’s The Waters & The Wild was a disappointment.

Daniel Abend’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Clementine, is missing. He’s a psychotherapist, but that doesn’t mitigate his own capacity for self-deception. “Have you even managed to convince yourself you aren’t lying?” Clementine raged. Then she is gone: out of his house; out of his life.

His patient Jessica Burke has overdosed; he knows it to be no accident, no suicide. It’s murder. He knows because an anonymous person has mailed him photos of her death. Daniel becomes convinced that the trajectories of his patient’s and his daughter’s lives are intertwined. He’s convinced his daughter is in danger.

It all started in Paris eighteen years earlier. On fellowship as a young psychoanalyst, he fell in love with Miriam, his beloved, Clementine’s mother. The story he tells Clementine is that she died in childbirth; as the novel progresses, the details are fleshed out and obfuscated: post-partum depression, or an embolism . . . or something else entirely.

One thing links Miriam, Daniel, the letter-writing suspect, and Jessica: Yeats’ famous poem “The Stolen Child,” which features the classic phrase “Come away o human child / to the waters and the wild/with a faery, hand in hand . . .” Although Clementine is missing, is apparent throughout that she hasn’t been kidnapped by faeries. Daniel knows his time is growing shorter because the letter-writer quotes Yeats’ poem in each missive, truncating verses and lines with each subsequent contact. It’s not the kind of evidence one can turn into the police.

To save himself, to save Clementine, to avenge Jessica Burke, Daniel journeys back to Paris where he encounters a man willing to kill for the sake of the mysterious and elusive Miriam, a woman Daniel never really knew and has preserved only in memories that have become fictions. The letter-writer is determined to bring the truth to light, and blames Daniel for what happened all those years ago . . .


As far as psychological fiction goes, the book has its merits. Harrison reveals details bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece, with true skillfulness. The conclusion is not quite deus ex machina, but Murderer (or Bond-villain) Explains All is disappointing as a denouncement. The ruses and machinations the murderer implements to bring his plan to fruition rely on a healthy suspension-of-disbelief. As a feminist, I could join Clementine in objecting to the manner in which Daniel defines all the women in his life. (I wonder if the author is aware of this problematic aspect.) Yet the suspenseful unfolding and revelation of the characters’ true identities was compelling and surprising.

True fans of psychological thrillers will likely enjoy The Waters and the Wild. The rest of us can skip it.


Harrison, DeSales. The Waters & The Wild. N.Y.: Random House, 2018




Our Part To Murmur Name Upon Name: Irish History in Song and Poetry

“Our part to murmur name upon name” – William Butler Yeats, “Easter 1916”      

Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland; public domain

In college, we preferred William Butler Yeats’ fairy and esoteric poetry.  We instinctively knew that the world was “more full of weeping” than we could understand. In our own way we dreaded “the monstrous crying of the wind” even if for us it was only real-life after graduation. His “widening gyre” sounded cool if incomprehensible; “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” was fun to chant; while “what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” was delightfully subversive.  His political poems were opaque to us.

After college, I read for pleasure and self-improvement.  I learned some Irish history (not taught in schools). Last year I re-read Yeats and remarked to a friend that “he makes so much more sense if you know Irish history.”  In his poem “Easter, 1916,” Yeats deems that it’s “heaven’s part” to weigh the suffering of the Irish people, while “our part [is] to murmur name upon name.”

That is what the The Wolfe Tones did in their concert at the Commodore Barry Irish Center in Philadelphia on March 6. The night was a celebration and remembrance of Irish patriots. The best part for me, a professional librarian and amateur historian, was the slide show of primary source photos and documents. Historical images were projected on a screen behind the band as they played. Images of the 1916 Proclamation joined Belfast and Derry murals; photos of Dublin’s GPO under siege were interspersed with breathtaking views of The Cliffs of Moher and the Powerscourt waterfall; and photos of many of the men being remembered accompanied the songs of their valor.  As the band sang and played, I realized I had more history yet to learn.

Plaque in the GPO (General Post Office), Dublin, commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising

Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin











These are some of the songs that were sung that night, and the history behind them:

“The Foggy Dew” commemorates the 1916 Easter Rising against the backdrop of W.W.I. Many Irishmen refused to fight for England against the Central Powers when their own beloved Ireland was not free.  The 1500 patriots who fought for Irish independence on Easter Monday 1916 are remembered in this song:

“But the bravest fell, and the requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Eastertide in the springing of the year
And the world did gaze, in deep amaze, at those fearless men, but few
Who bore the fight that freedom’s light might shine through the foggy dew.”         

“Sean South of Garryowen” tells this tale: On New Year’s Day 1957, the I.R.A. raided the Royal Ulster Constabulary barracks in Brookeborough, Northern Ireland.  Two men, including South, died. (O’Hanlon is commemorated in the song “Patriot Games.”) This song proclaims:

 “They have gone to join that gallant band
Of Plunkett, Pearse and Tone
A martyr for old Ireland

Sean South from Garryowen.”

P.S. I heard he wasn’t from Garryowen.

Monument to South and O’Hanlon in Moane’s Cross, Fermanagh; CC 2.0

Brian Warfield called for respectful silence during “Joe McDonnell.” McDonnell participated and died in the 1981 hunger strike in Long Kesh/H-Maze prison protesting the prison conditions.  I.R.A. prisoners demanded the right to be treated like prisoners of war and not criminals; including the right to wear their own clothes and not a prison uniform, and the right to be exempt from prison labor.  He went without food for 61 days and died on July 8, 1981. He was buried in Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast next to Bobby Sands and other compatriots.  The lyrics to Joe McDonnell famously proclaim:

 “And you dare to call me a terrorist
While you looked down your gun
When I think of all the deeds that you had done
You had plundered many nations; divided many lands
You had terrorized their peoples you ruled with an iron hand
And you brought this reign of terror to my land.”

The night wasn’t all protest songs; the band did a fine job balancing love songs and war songs; fast songs and reflective songs.  The 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Celtic Football Club was remembered in their rousing “Celtic Symphony,” and the beauty of Ireland was celebrated in “The Cliffs of Moher.”

The Cliffs of Moher

Because Irish history isn’t taught in schools, we learn it only through poetry and song. I thank the Wolfe Tones for their music, the excellent slideshow, and for the impetus for encouraging me to delve more deeply into 20th Century Irish history. And I honor those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom.


Bonus Materials

Easter 1916 website and Easter Rising online exhibit and photo gallery from Century Ireland. Great documentary photos!

“Patrick Pearse: One of Ireland’s Noblest Martyrs” from Century Ireland. (November 17, 1917.)

Brian Warfield of The Wolfe Tones writes about The Great Hunger (The Great Irish Famine) and The 1916 Easter Rising.

Poems referenced in the first paragraph:

“for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” is from Yeats’ “The Stolen Child”

“the monstrous crying of the wind” is from Yeats’ “To A Child Dancing In the Wind”

“widening gyre;” “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” “what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” are all quotes from Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”