Sister Pelegia and the Red Cockerel by Boris Akunin

sisterReviewed by Douglas R. Cobb

Sister Pelagia, the world’s favorite nun/sleuth (no, they’re not incompatible avocations) is back in Boris Akunin’s excellent page-turning novel of suspense, Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel, translated by the inimitable Andrew Bromfield. Aboard the ship the Sturgeon, Sister Pelagia is counseled by Bishop Mitrofani, her spiritual guide, leader, and superior in the Russian Orthodox Church, the official, government sanctioned church for Russia. They’re both on the carpet for Pelagia’s decidedly unorthodox behavior in the past, becoming involved in solving crimes and murders, such as in the novels Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog and Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk.

Some officials in the church, like Konstatin Petrovich Pobedin, the Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod, believe that Mitrofani is too lenient in his toleration for people of other faiths. Also, the question arises if Sister Pelagia might not be spending too much time being involved in things of the world, rather than in following and spreading her faith to others. Podebin berates her on this spiritual failing:

“You even lie about it. A fine Bride of Christ,” said Podebin pricking her on her most painful spot. “A detective in a nun’s habit. Well, what can I make of that?”

She promises to do better, to stop acting like a sleuth and to stop getting herself into the affairs of the police, and to devote herself more to Jesus. But, she finds this easier said than done, especially when the dead body of the Messiah of the Foundlings, a religious sect also aboard the Sturgeon, is brutally murdered. The poor fellow’s head has been bashed in from the back with such an immense amount of force that it’s knocked his eyeballs out of their sockets. The death is made to appear like it happened during a robbery, for the sect’s treasury box that had been under the man’s pillow has been stolen.

The Foundlings are a group of pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land, to Jerusalem. They desire to more like the Jews in many particulars, the males even pondering if they should become circumcised. They reject, like the Jews, Jesus as their Messiah, believing that Manuila (a form of the name “Emmanuel”), whom they follow as their spiritual leader, is the true Messiah.

Strangely, rather than strongly bemoan about the death of their prophet, their Messiah, and wail and gnash their teeth, they act relatively calmly, but want to get their treasure back. The reason is because they have heard stories that their Messiah has died once before, and rose from the grave in human form, and if he dies again, he can do the same. Also, Sister Pelagia believes that the Foundlings know that the man on the ship that was murdered is actually Manuila’s double, and that the actual Manuila is headed to Jerusalem by an entirely different route, knowing that there are people who want him dead.

As the saying goes, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Sister Pelagia winds up traveling with a police inspector to the small village where the dead man, who they discover is not Manuila, used to live. The village had been visited by Manuila, and though most of the people there rejected and derided him, the dead man wanted to be more like him. Sister Pelagia meets a young girl who had been mute and considered to be stupid by the villagers, who, after Manuila’s visit, was healed miraculously. She begins to have feelings for the inspector, and wonders if the real reason she traveled to the village with him was because she was questioning whether she should still be a nun, and because she was falling in love with her traveling companion.

The first Sister Pelagia novel I read and reviewed here was Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk, and I really liked Pelagia’s quick wit and intelligence, and Boris Akunin’s clever and twisting tale,, mixing the supernatural with religious faith and scientific facts. Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel is also a book I thoroughly enjoyed. Pelagia travels further in this novel than in any previously, going all the way to Jerusalem to pursue leads, though Mitrofani believes he is sending her there in order to hide her away in a hermitage from criminals who are intent on killing her.

Already, by this point in the novel, there have been two attempts on her life. The first time, someone traps her inside of a cave by creating a landslide. She’s inside searching it because the mute girl that Manuila healed had lived in the cave briefly. A red rooster, symbolic of Christ, led her into the cave. The red cockerel, the girl has told her, can find its way out of any maze, and Sister Pelagia uses it to help her escape her apparent entombment.

The second time, Pelagia pricks her finger on a nail that has been doctored with a potent cocktail of poisons. Fortunately for her, State Counselor Matvei Bentsionovich, who is smitten by her charms, is with her and sucks the poison out of her finger. They manage to get help at the hospital before the poison that is left in their systems has a chance to do serious harm.

For a nun, Sister Pelagia gets around. This novel shows that although she is a nun, she is human, also, and is not immune to the lures of the flesh. Whether you’re already a fan of Boris Akunin’s literature or are new to his work and have never read his books before, if you love great mysteries you owe to to yourselves to add Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel to your reading lists.

Leave a Reply