The shipboard murder of a man who’s both more and less than he seems to be launches Sister Pelagia on her most ambitious case.
The leader who in life called himself Manuila is revered by the Foundlings, a messianic Jewish sect, and reviled by both Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Jews as a false prophet. But the biggest surprise about the man beaten to death aboard the Sturgeon is that he isn’t Manuila after all; the apparent victim has disappeared as completely as his killer. When Sister Pelagia extends and corrects Inspector Dolinin’s deductions about the crime, the investigator, who’s clearly both nettled and impressed, presses her to take a more active role in the case. Even apart from Pelagia’s normal reluctance to neglect her vocation for criminal inquiry, the obstacles are formidable. A series of attempts against her life sends her fleeing from Russia to Palestine, where she’s stalked by a killer certain she’ll lead him to Manuila. Back home, her alleged official allies are busy undermining her. The range of adventures along the way is fabulous. Sister Pelagia is rescued from a cave-in by the eponymous rooster. District Prosecutor Berdichevsky crosses swords with a mad count whose castle holds a bizarre collection of artifacts. The final revelation is nothing short of epochal.
That revelation is so long in coming, though, that newcomers overwhelmed by the rich feast Akunin spreads here may want to begin with the more modest fare offered in earlier volumes (Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk, 2008, etc.).