I’ve been desperately editing Three Parts Dead for the last several weeks, so there hasn’t been much to report on the writing front, but I feel a need to give a shout-out to Boris Akunin’s Sister Pelagia mysteries (as if the internationally bestselling author needs my help).
I’ve read the first two books of the trilogy: Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, and Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk. In these books, Akunin deliberately leaves behind the globetrotting 19th century adventurism of his Fandorin series to focus on the rural Russian precinct of Zavolzhk (sp?), ruled over in name by a pleasant provincial governor, but in truth by the formidable and intelligent Bishop Mitrofanii. The ostensible main character is the young nun Pelagia, a “ginger haired beauty” and noble Moscow widow who took the cowl after an unspecified tragedy.
From that description, you’re probably expecting these books to be traditional clue-hunting mysteries after the Poirot model. That’s not quite accurate, though they use so many traditional mystery tropes that they draw frequent comparisons to Agatha Christie and Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. The biggest departure from mystery tradition is the degree to which Pelagia, the main “sleuth,” is a part of the world she inhabits: she has friends, firm allegiances, and a great deal of faith. Detectives frequently appear as outsiders in mystery fiction, because the detective’s place is similar to the writer’s: both investigate a chaotic tangle of motives, passion, and temptation, trying to order everything into a coherent story. The rationalist Holmes and the roughed-up paladin Sam Spade fit into this model, as does Akunin’s other main character Erast Fandorin. This basic tension between the detective/writer and the observed society is the force behind Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, though don’t take that as an endorsement of the New York Trilogy from me — but that’s a rant for another time.
Pelagia, by contrast, is tied to the Russian society she examines by the constraints that society places on her as a nun and as a woman. Her skillful navigation of that society, in addition to (and occasionally rather than) her analysis of it, is a key to solving the mysteries she confronts. In some ways, the entire second novel is about the contrast between the purely analytical approach and the societal approach… but I can’t say much more without transgressing on spoiler territory.
My point is, anyway, if you’re looking for an interesting spin on mysteries, try these. They’re really fascinating.