Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk

Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk by Boris Akunin. In addition to his wonderful Erast Fandorin stories, this writer from Moscow has a second historical mystery series featuring Sister Pelagia. An orthodox nun in the late-19th century who teaches gymnastics and literature, Pelagia best serves her bishop by solving suspicious cases throughout their rural province. A ghostly presence has infiltrated an island monastery, terrorizing the monks, the island residents, including those at the local minimum-security mental institution, and the many pilgrims who travel there. When the bishop’s investigators run afoul of the Black Monk, Sister Pelagia takes it upon herself to travel undercover and unearth those responsible. Aficionados of Russian literature will find many references throughout the book and mystery fans will enjoy the complex plot.

Pelagia has been compared to both Father Brown and Miss Marple, but I feel she resembles Peter Tremayne’s Irish religieuse, Sister Fidelma. Physically, both are young, athletic and auburn-tressed. They also share a passion for women’s rights, not only within the Church, but in society as well, and they can be intellectually arrogant and stubborn when dealing with those less sharp-minded than themselves. The Pelagia stories lack the legal and sexual components that the Fidelma tales usual include, though there is certainly an awareness of the latter in the “Black Monk” adventure.

I am not yet fully taken with Pelagia and I definitely prefer the Fandorin series, but I will be on the lookout for the next colorful title (White Bulldog was the first and Red Rooster is forthcoming).

On a side note, I can’t imagine two more divergent settings than a remote 19th century Russian monastery and a roaring 1920s Australian manor house, but I was struck by the surprising similarities in the structure of the cases presented by Akunin here and by Greenwood in “Urn Burial.” To give more details here would spoil the mysteries, but I would be happy to discuss them off-line.

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1 Response to “Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk”



  1. 1 The Mark of the Pasha « The unset alarm clock Trackback on June 24, 2008 at 1:18 pm

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