Priests and nuns have long since made very credible detectives precisely because they are people of principle: there are some unacceptable things in their world, and those things must be combated and bludgeoned by courage and intelligence. What is often not underscored, however, is their curiosity. Those who believe may indeed be cordoned off in some small corner like a wildebeest on protected territory where no one will harm or near them; the ground beneath their feet may even be so tender as to blind them to all externalities except that of their faith. Such souls, however, while oftentimes well-meaning, will inevitably be crippled by their parochialism should they encounter adversity or an outsider. In a strange way, the true believer exposed to as much difference and change as possible has a distinct advantage. While little should be said against the anchorite who chooses piety over the secular hedonism that has pervaded our planet, a man of faith should aspire to being a rootless cosmopolitan, because then he can behold the multifarious wonders forged by his Creator. And if not entirely deracinated, then at least open-minded to the material mysteries that surround us, as depicted in this novel.
Our time is late Imperial Russia, and our heroine is a fetching, thirtyish redhead lightly coated in freckles; she has also seen enough of life to know that she will spend the rest of it married to her Savior. The task that we know she will eventually assume is the investigation of New Ararat, a northern oasis of spiritual bliss built around the great Hermitage monastery and its twelfth-century saint, Saint Basilisk. Now if you happen to know something about the Moscovian coat of arms as well as modern herpetology, you might be able to surmise why the name basilisk was chosen. Nevertheless, even without the presumption of such knowledge, we may easily understand the stratagem. A tall, thin, hooded figure in the garb of one of the hermits – that is, in a sealed black cowl – has been spotted walking across the waters leading to Outskirts Island and the impregnable monastery. The matter is brought to the attention of Zavolzhsk Bishop Mitrofanii, who dispatches in sequence three men: Alexei Lentochkin, an atheist and acerbic wit with a taste for nasty revenge; Felix Lagrange, a non-believer, head of the Zavolzhsk police and a swashbuckling cad; and then finally Matvei Berdichevsky, a convert from Judaism, a father expecting his thirteenth child, and an attorney of little imagination. Each is sent on the heels of the other's failure; what these failures involve should not be revealed here. Suffice it to say that all three men are betrayed by their weaknesses, overreliance on their own abilities, and some truly malevolent skulduggery that leaves Mitrofanii only one choice. He must send his beloved "spiritual daughter" Pelagia to learn the fate of those three brazen emissaries. Or, I should say, when Mitrofanii is suddenly struck down in ill health, Pelagia decides to send herself.
St. Basilisk lends us one clue as to the story's provenance, while the opulent psychotherapist Korovin and the titular villain cannot but suggest this well-known story (Korovin may ultimately remind English readers of another Doctor and another island of wayward experiments). These experiments, a clear counterweight to the spiritual authority of the novel, are conducted on an eclectic bunch of scientists, artists and other persons of prominence suffering from some kind of mental obstacle, even if that obstacle is merely society's ignorance of their genius. It is here that we find, inter alios: Yoshihin, the master painter whose tableaus triumph over reality; a nymphomaniac society lady who takes no liking to poor Pelagia; a mysophobe who walks around on stilts; and a physicist convinced of the existence of colored emanations nimbed around each person's head. What will be initially unclear to us given Korovin's open-door policy is which of these persons is actually a patient and which is just a pilgrim come to New Ararat to dine on the hearty food, take in the "healthful air" and cleanse himself of his past indiscretions. For that reason Pelagia opts to travel incognito, enduring a series of discomfiting episodes that never really challenge her faith but do make her think twice about having taken the veil at so young an age. Even if, for investigative purposes, her veil is shed about a third of the way through the novel for a more exciting and worldly habit.
About five years ago I received as a gift two of Akunin's novels which, while well-written, I could not find exceptional (I later discovered they were his first). Mysteries are pleasant adventures, surely, and perhaps the most natural of all narratives; yet the vast majority of whodunits, thrillers and the like suffer by virtue of the need to explain how they operate. Not only are all loose ends tied up, they are bound in the neatest of bows. Each plot fits together like a perfectly crafted jigsaw puzzle, each character's motivations reflect his acts and words, and however horrible or confounding the crime might have initially appeared, everything that happened dissolves into a bland watercolor of childlike simplicity. Pelagia and the Black Monk undoubtedly contains many such moments more typical of an action thriller or those Romantic and Victorian serials that had to end every chapter on what we now call a cliffhanger; we even encounter that unfortunate conceit of historical fiction of presciently announcing now-contemporary phenomena and events. Nevertheless, Akunin's style and learning are not as shallow as the waters surrounding New Ararat, and with every step we graze against shelves of literary history, some of it maudlin, others more promising in their philosophies. There are also Pelagia's jeremiads against men that are completely not in character, but befit a much older and more jaded Mother Superior. But then again, men rule the world, so why shouldn't New Ararat be nothing more than a male version of Eden? Because in Eden one doubts there would be either nun or friar.