Sister Pelagia
and the Black Monk

By Boris Akunin

Random House.

358 pp. $14 paperback


Reviewed by Bill Kent


Though its roots can be traced as far back as

Oedipus Rex

, the modern mystery began in the English-speaking world. Cultivated by Edgar Allan Poe, extended by Wilkie Collins, perfected by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and hybridized by thousands of writers on both sides of the Atlantic, it has traditionally reflected the British obsession with civic order and social class, and the very American pursuit of truth, justice and individual responsibility.

We get glimpses of what's going on elsewhere in the genre through films and translations. Akira Kurosawa's masterful movie

Rashomon

, Peter Hoeg's

Smilla's Sense of Snow

, Umberto Ecco's

The Name of the Rose

, and George Simenon's sour tales of Inspector Maigret are a handful among many vital variations on the theme of crime and how the truth will out.

We can now add to this list Boris Akunin, the pen name of Grigory Chkharishvili, a Russian literary magazine editor, philologist, Japanese translator, and author of a scholarly tome on writers and suicide. His 11-volume mystery series featuring a James Bondish, Flashmanlike czarist detective adventurer named Erast Fandorin has achieved best-seller status in Russia.

Akunin has two other series. The second, set in the 20th century, involves Fandorin's grandson. The third, set in an eerie, almost comically surreal, pre-industrial Russia of the 1890s, revolves around a shy, awkward 30-year-old nun named Sister Pelagia.

Sister Pelagia, who teaches literature and girls' gymnastics, isn't quite comfortable with convent life. When her superior, the expansive, grandstanding Bishop Mitrofanii, has an especially touchy matter that he can't personally investigate, Sister Pelagia dons a disguise, slips past the convent walls, and transforms herself into an engaging amateur sleuth.

Pelagia's adventures can be rough going at first, because Akunin writes in the voice of a garrulous, discursive, frequently satirical unnamed narrator. It takes a while to figure out that the story, unlike the direct, visceral narratives common in the English-speaking world, isn't so much about what happens as about how various people, ending with Sister Pelagia, perceive what happens.

Pelagia frequently misses clues and makes mistakes, but eventually solves the crimes by employing a uniquely counterintuitive feminist point of view.

"Men have no curiosity about anything they regard as unimportant," she tells the bishop in

Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk

, "but the unimportant often conceals the most essential. When something has to be built, or even better, demolished, then men have no equal. But if patience, understanding and possibly even compassion are required, then it is best to entrust the business to a woman."

What makes Pelagia such a compelling series character is not just her ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, but the ironic conceit that, in order to do her detective work, she must pretend to be someone she is not.

Even when she misses clues or doesn't quite understand what a person may be telling her, Pelagia comes close to being a feminist Walter Mitty. She flirts with her fantasy of the worldly woman she'd rather be, then dons the shapeless clothing of her religious order and disappears, so that Bishop Mitrofanii can take all the credit for solving the crime.

The first tale in her series,

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog

, was published here in January 2007. You don't need to read the first book to enjoy the second, a story that, because of its monastic setting and its seemingly supernatural elements, could be a cross between Ecco's

The Name of the Rose

and Doyle's

The Hound of the Baskervilles

.

Who, or what, is the black-cowled figure seen walking on the water on moonlit nights around the islands in the archipelago of New Ararat? Located some distance from Moscow in the middle of a vast lake, one of the islands is the site of a medieval retreat dedicated to Saint Basilisk. It is forbidden to everyone but male hermits who have renounced the world and taken a vow of silence. Another island houses a peculiar insane asylum founded by a wealthy Russian mine owner who permits his patients to roam about at will.

Akunin has the most fun with the third, and largest, island, where the troublesome Black Monk has been seen most often, uttering bitter words of condemnation and scorn that have become bad for the thriving pilgrimage business.

On this island, you can get holy water from automatic, five-kopek dispensers, take it straight from blessed bottles or knock back a "triple-blessed" concoction of holy water flavored with raspberry syrup. You can dine at a restaurant called Balthasar's Feast, get a trim at Delilah's hairdressing salon, draw money from the Widow's Mite bank and spend it on souvenirs from Gifts of the Magi before retiring for the night to the Noah's Ark hotel or the cheaper Promised Land boardinghouse.

The bishop sends one investigator who goes insane and another who kills himself. Pelagia begs Mitrofanii to send her, but he feels that a legal mind might solve the puzzle. When assistant public prosecutor Matvei Bentsionvich also loses his mind, the bishop reluctantly permits Sister Pelagia to save the day.

It takes more than 100 pages before she sets foot on the island, disguised as a widowed noblewoman, and discovers that the Black Monk's increasingly horrific appearances are the result of a manic pursuit of knowledge relating to a mineral whose strange glowing property will soon be known as radioactivity.

Imagine a witty, sarcastic, elliptical mystery that begins like

Baskervilles

, turns into

Name of the Rose

, and becomes

Dr. Faustus

, with the dour, neither-this-nor-that cynicism of Dostoyevsky's

The Possessed

thrown in just for fun.

Fun? Absolutely. Akunin is smart and funny and knows how to tell a great tale whose layered meaning and subtle nuances make it more than mere entertainment.

Bill Kent lives in Wynnewood. He is the author of seven mystery novels, and teaches novel-writing at Temple University. In June, he will lead writing workshops at the Wildwood Beach and Philadelphia Writers conferences.