PELAGIA & THE RED ROOSTER - Boris Akunin
PELAGIA & THE RED ROOSTER is the third book (and I believe the last) in this series by Russian author Grigory Chkhartishvili aka Boris Akunin. Readers may be more aware of the six Erast Fandorin novels, which I understand have sold over 18 million copies in Russia alone.
This is the first of the Pelagia novels I've read, having had the pleasure of a few of the Fandorin novels before, and I was reminded again of the absolute feeling of 19th and, in this case, 20th Century Russian sensibility that this author brings to his books.
Having said that, I'm not sure that I'd recommend a new reader to the Pelagia series start at this point, not the least because I found this book more than a little odd. It took quite a while to get the character of Sister Pelagia figured out, especially, as I had no idea what it was that bought the young Polina Andreevna to a convent in rural Zavolzhsk by the Volga, to take up the habit and turn to teaching at the local school. I suspect this lack of background made Pelagia seem a most unlikely sort of a nun to have come from this place, in this timeframe. Pelagia has a very unexpected attitude to authority within the church, and a quite upfront relationship with the Bishops and with her fellow-travellers. To say nothing of a level of freedom which didn't quite make sense at points.
On a ship returning from St Petersburg, Pelagia comes across members of a controversial Jewish sect. After the murder of a man, initially believed to be the sect's charismatic leader in the cabin next door to Pelagia, she travels even further afield; seeking the dead man's true identity and the whereabouts of the real founder of the sect - Manuila; as well as, ultimately, a murderer.
As Sister Pelagia conducts this investigation she is hindered by a lurking man with a removable eye, but aided by a small Red Rooster and the public prosecutor Matvei Bentsionovich Berdichevsky. Matvei a Jew who has converted to Russian Orthodoxy, finds himself pursuing leads within government circles, surrounded by political machinations, intrigues, and anti-Semitic hostility. He also finds himself very preoccupied by his attraction to Sister Pelagia. Meanwhile she is forced to flee to the Holy Land, encountering Palestinian guides, Zionist groups and an American millionaire supporting the re-establishment of Soddom.
Needless to say, this is a very complicated, convoluted and heavily populated plot to get a handle on whilst you are also trying to work out what the central character's personal story is. It could also be very easy to think that you are heading into expected territory what with a single, female, unlikely central investigator. Pelagia, however, is not a Russian Miss Marple character. Very quickly it becomes obvious that PELAGIA & THE RED ROOSTER is not just an intricate tale of religious differences, tensions and obsessions, it is also a tale of a society that is undergoing massive upheaval. Whist appreciating the glimpse into the societal aspects, I never did lose the feeling throughout the book that things were a bit odd. Whether or not it was the elaborate, very Russian stylings, balanced against a nun who didn't seem to be behaving as expected; whether or not it was the religious machinations which were laid on very very thick, or simply the sense that everybody hated everyone who wasn't from their own group, I couldn't shake the feeling that I just didn't quite know what was going on. I think I would have preferred a lot more of the red rooster, and a lot less of the religious machinations. Perhaps if you're a fan of intricate historical perspectives, with a higher tolerance for or interest in religious perspectives - you might like to try the Sister Pelagia series.
The earlier books are Pelagia and the Black Monk and Pelagia and the White Bulldog.
Returning from the Synod in St Petersburg - an an official rebuke of her crime-fighting ways - Pelagia finds herself aboard the Steamer Sturgeon, dodging pickpockets, zealots and a sinister man with a detachable eye. But the brutal murder of the would-be Messiah in the cabin next door spells the end of Pelagia's sleuthing retirement, and the beginning of an investigation that will take her to the Holy Land and far beyond the realms of human knowledge.