Pelagia and the Red Rooster, By Boris Akunin

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The Independent Culture

The third in Boris Akunin's series of mysteries about the exploits of Sister Pelagia, a crime-busting nun in late 19th-century St Petersburg, this is a clever, quirky novel, where you never quite know what's going to happen next.

Sister Pelagia is on a steamer making its way to St Petersburg when the man travelling in the cabin adjacent to hers is murdered – struck on the back of the head so violently that his eyes literally pop out of his head.

The victim appears to be a prophet named Manuila, the leader of a new religious sect, but it turns out that the corpse was an impostor, the second time this has happened.

Sister Pelagia then sets out on a journey to the Holy Land in search of the real Manuila; in the meantime, she herself is being pursued by a succession of pitiless assassins.

This has an unusually ambitious sweep for a detective novel, with a huge cast of characters (and a pretty high attrition rate for them too), an immense variety of settings, and themes that take in anti-Semitism, religion and the supernatural – the latter normally regarded as out-of-bounds for the genre, but it works fine here.

Akunin has a taste for the grotesque: one scene set in a medieval Russian castle, where the seignior shows off a cabinet of curiosities including a smoked head, purses made out of breasts and a collection of dried vaginas, could be an unpublished piece by Poe.

Best of all, though, is the character of Sister Pelagia: cool, shrewd, kindly, thoughtful, forgiving and devoid of the irritating idiosyncrasies so many detective writers see fit to saddle their creations with. Like all the best detective novels, Pelagia and the Red Rooster is both relaxing and stimulating at the same time.