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Pelagia and the White Bulldog by Boris Akunin, trs Andrew Bromfield

Beware nuns with knitting needles

Sister Pelagia is a frumpy, ginger-haired, bespectacled nun who spends her entire time tripping over, bumping into things and losing her glasses: "and so it was with her - she was not a nun but a walking disaster with freckles." It's not a particularly original idea, and here it gets very tiresome, with Pelagia spilling tea on a man's crotch, sending a bowl of apples flying, and so on.

She is sent to investigate the attempted murder of a wealthy widow: someone is killing the widow's prize bulldogs, so the widow is dying from grief. It's clearly not a challenging plotline, although it does develop into something a bit more gripping, thank goodness. I can't reveal how without spoiling it, but I will point out that you have to endure some pretty unconvincing wailing from the widow in the meantime: "'Oh, I can't bear it... Oh God...' and she gave a heartrending shriek ... large, hysterical tears welled up ... [she] attempted to stand up, but she could not manage it and slumped back helplessly."

And so it goes on. I'm not sure the translation does the narration any favours, with plenty of clunky sentences. The most amusing examples include: "As for the month omitted from our story, one could not say that nothing at all happened during its course - on the contrary, things had happened, a great many things, but these events had no direct connection with the main line of our narrative and so we shall therefore skip through them briefly, 'with a light step' as the ancients used to say"; or "And would you believe it, she had merely taken a jump out of the frying pan into the fire." Lengthy stuff. We are even given the option of missing out one hefty section as "no damage will be caused to the elegant line of the narrative as a result." Elegant? Hmmm...

Another problem with the story is that many of the key episodes are, at best, weakly devised and, at worst, throw-your-hands-in-the-air predictable. Why, for example, should a secret conversation happen to take place just inches from Pelagia's window? Or on the other side of the hedge by which Pelagia is standing? And no prizes for guessing that Pelagia gets a sexy makeover, or that her knitting needles, which she carries with her at all times, become semi-deadly weapons in times of crisis.

It's a shame, but I really found very few redeeming qualities about this book, with the sole exception of a rather exciting chase towards the end - although even that is tarnished with some laboured "oh wasn't that lucky" moments.

I do hope Pelagia bucks up her ideas in time for the next book in the series; after all, even scatty Maria pulled herself to gether enough to marry Captain von Trapp.