Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"The square onto which the windows of the district court looked out was already almost completely empty by this hour in the early evening."

Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk is the second book translated to English in Boris Akunin's series about a young nun who is incredibly adept at gymnastics and solving crimes. I read the first book in the series, Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, just over a year ago and really enjoyed it. This book had many of the same features that attracted me to the first novel.

The setting of this series of mysteries is rural Russia, I believe in the early 1900s because this second book (which takes place directly after the first) references the work of Madame Curie which was first published in 1898. The mysteries in both of these books are very well formed and not at all predictable. In this current novel, a spectral "black monk" is appearing at a hermitage in their district, provoking hysteria and even death. After unsucessful investigations by three other people, Sister Pelagia eventually takes it on herself to travel to this monastery and solve the mystery. She is quite amusing in that, in both books, she takes on the persona of a Muscovite widow and dresses in the latest fashions, pretending to be a layperson. In this one she also adds a second disguise -- a young male monk.

Some of the more interesting parts of these books are not in the narratives at all but in the religious discussions between Sister Pelagia and her mentor, Bishop Mitrofanii. It is very intriguing to get a glimpse of Russian Orthodoxy about 100 years ago. More in the first book than this second one, there is quite a bit of information about rural political structure in Russia which is also interesting. These books are fantastic as both historical studies and mysteries. I again must complement Akunin's English translator, Andrew Bromfield, as I have ready many a poor translation from Russian.

The third book in the series, Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel, comes out in August.

Loving a dark Russian mystery,

Buy Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk on Amazon or find it at your local library.

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