Book Review: Boris Akunin, Pelagia and the Red Rooster

I’ve reviewed a couple of Akunin’s Erast Fandorin detective/thriller stories here before, but this is my first encounter with his other detective hero, an Orthodox nun, Sister Pelagia. The period is the same, obviously one Akunin has researched and feels at home in, the last thirty years or so of Tsarist Russia. I can imagine that present-day Russian readers feel a fascination for this period.

Fandorin is an official whose duties lead to him investigating or trying to prevent crimes, or, later, an ex-official who has retained detective interests. That a nun is a detective demands a greater leap of imagination, more actually than for England’s and G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, whose pastoral duties brought him into contact with crime. One thing I noted was that for a nun, Pelagia didn’t seem very religious, in contrast to Father Brown.

The story moves between the Russian Empire and Palestine. There is a fascinating picture of pilgrims, Jewish settlers and others travelling from Russia to Palestine. I would think the picture of Palestine in that period is quite accurate, but I’m not well-qualified to say. The story begins with a double murder and revolves around attempts to kill a mysterious prophet – but Pelagia herself becomes an assassin’s target. Some of the dramatic physical action in the Fandorin stories is far-fetched, a bit like reading a transcript of a James Bond film rather than the more restrained and credible original novel. To a degree that’s true here too.

The mystery is well-maintained. Whoever wants the prophet and Pelagia dead is clearly rich and powerful – but who is it and what is the motive?

A considerable sadistic element becomes evident. Innocent and likeable characters get brutally murdered one after the other. This creates shock, but I wonder about the need for shock after shock after shock. Two characters have their eyes poked out in separate incidents. We are introduced to a nobleman who collects, amongst other things, female body parts. He’s meant to be a monster, but again I have some doubts, at least about the degree of the horror.

The ending reveals a lot more about the prophet, which I find to be sensitively and credibly done, but introduces some dubious magicality which doesn’t, for me, sit very well with the rest of the story.

Well, what do I say? Well-written; fascinating much of the time; but unlike the Fandorin books, I don’t recommend it.

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