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Sister Pelagia, a nun in the small Russian town of Zavolzhsk, goes to investigate the death of a prize bulldog. She is used to dealing with more human mysteries, but in this case the bulldog's owner is the Bishop of Zavolzhsk's aunt. The aunt is ill with worry for her two other dogs and believes that someone is killing them deliberately so that she will die of grief. Sure enough, shortly after Sister Pelagia arrives, another of the dogs is axed to death.
At the same time, there are serious changes afoot in Zavolzhsk. A Synodical Inspector arrives in town from St Petersburg. Bubentsov clearly has a hidden agenda - to increase his power within St Petersburg. While he is there, two headless bodies are pulled out of a nearby river. Bubentsov believes that it is the doing of a religious sect, who although pretending to follow the customs of the Orthodox Church, are secretly obeying outlawed rituals. He decides to make it his mission to wipe out the sect, alienating many of the town's leaders. Then another man is murdered. Can Sister Pelagia solve the mystery of the poisoned bulldogs and find out whether the headless bodies really were murdered by the sect in question? And is the second murder linked to the first?
Boris Akunin is better known for his Erast Fandorin books about a police investigator towards the end of the nineteenth century. This is the first book he has written in this series, although it seems that there are more to come. I did enjoy the first two Erast Fandorin books, before the series took a nosedive in quality. I hoped that with the beginning of a new series, Akunin would return to form. Unfortunately, I struggled to finish this book and I think I have finally given up on this author.
Sister Pelagia is quite an engaging character. She reminds me of The Sound of Music's Maria, in that she is mischievous, clumsy, clever and not quite all that a nun should be. She has red hair, which frequently appears from underneath her wimple and she is covered in freckles, which she is also trying to get rid of. However, the Bishop of Zavolzhsk knows her powers of investigation well; she has helped him solve mysteries in the past and decides that she is the best person to help him with the bulldog case. This is definitely a promising character and I think it a shame that her debut is ruined by pedantic and unnecessary prose.
Bubentsov is heralded as unpopular from the beginning of the story, except amongst some of the women folk who fall for his charm. Born to a wealthy family, he spent most of his inheritance while young, gambling and womanizing. This new job opportunity is his first chance to get back on track and he tends to make the most of it. He is typical of a Akunin character - all are caricatures - the book is a farce, after all, and it is easy to dislike him. Again, good character, shame about the padding around it.
The story itself is quite a fun one. There are a certain number of suspects, any of whom could have committed the poisoning and then the murder. If Akunin had stuck to the basics, without trying to embellish with paragraphs and paragraphs of dull prose, this book would have been much better for it. I frequently found myself switching off as I read through the book, often having to read a page two or three times before I decided it was not worth bothering with anyway. To be honest, had I not planned to write this review, I would probably not have finished it. Even the ending did not grip me, which is very unusual in a piece of crime fiction.
The book is translated from the original Russian by Andrew Bromfield. I don't speak Russian, but I suspect that he has done a very good job of the translation; the dullness comes from the original language.
I would really like to recommend this book. This is the second highly original character he has developed and he should be able to pull off a much better book. Personally, I think he needs to change his editor. Or maybe he needs to change the way he writes for a Western audience - I know that he is widely popular in Russia, so it may just be my take on his writing that is not so favourable. I do know though that I will not be bothering to read another one of his books. Not recommended.
The book is available from play.com for £9.99. Published by Orion Publishing, it has 304 pages. ISBN: 9780297848622