Sister Pelagia - that's her name - is Holmes-like character that drives the whole story forward and still remains quite mysterious, which only made my appetite for next books in series bigger.
There is a fatherly, protective provincial bishop Reverend Mitrofanii and there is witty, a little-to-pretty-to-be-a-nun Sister Pelagia. I prefer when the characterization is short and to the point like when Akunin describes Anton Antonovich von Haggenau who "used to be a German, but he completely recovered." Strangely enough, the only character about whom we know very little is Sister Pelagia. The mystery itself revolves around some white bulldogs that drop dead one after another and Synodical Inspector who arrives from St Petersburg like the Spanish Inquisition bent on eradicating everything that is not Russian Orthodox Church, be it the Old Believers or even "older" believers, i.e. pure pagans.
It's not your typical mystery because Akunin goes off on these tangents about the history of the town it's set in, and who the people are, and things like that. She's a clumsy and awkward nun who's brilliant at solving mysteries, but the credit for it goes to Bishop Mitrofanii because, you know, he's a man and a bishop and all that. An interview with Akunin at the end of my copy of this book reveals that he wanted to show that popular literature and good fiction could be the same thing.
She writes to her nephew Mitrofanii (Who is the Bishop of Zavolzhsk) and asks him to investigate the matter since he had helped the police in previous cases. Bishop Mitrofanii sends sister Pelagia in his place (who is clumsy, yet has a sharp mind and a good observation) to find the truth.
Some people (and some white bulldogs) are murdered; you'll have to read the book to see if and how evil is thwarted. This seems simple enough, but it's in Russia, in a period I never read about, so I don't have the cultural background Akunin can assume in his Russian readers. The visiting procurator (the bad guy) tries to get the public behind him to wrest power from the local Bishop (the good guy) by pointing out how soft he is on the Old Believers, who should be brought back to the Orthodox fold. But it's not just satiric references to Russian culture; it's the whole voice of the piece.
The novel begins with a seemingly minor mystery, the death of a particular white bulldog, in the country home of a wealthy widow, but leads into a story that delves into the politics of the day, the religious life of Russia and the Russian provinces, and the entire structure of the province's society.
I think I am reading a book that is a murder mystery, or a historical fiction, or some dabbling in magic realism. When the book was just murder and mystery, it was fun.
Pelagia and the Black Monk is next and the Red Cockerel is third, although technically speaking this is not necessarily a trilogy: there could be more stories about Pelagia.
The letter contains a plea for assistance in the ongoing murderous attacks on the wealthy woman's white bulldogs she has devoted much of her life to breeding. Fortunately for Bishop Mitrofanii, he has a secret weapon to help him solve the mystery of the bulldogs--Sister Pelagia, a young, clumsy nun who is a devoted, if poor knitter.
In 1998 he made his debut with novel Azazel (to English readers known as The Winter Queen), where he created Erast Pietrovich Fandorin. In September of 2000, Akunin was named Russian Writer of the Year and won the "Antibooker" prize in 2000 for his Erast Fandorin novel Coronation, or the last of the Romanovs.