A Russian nun who could be a cousin of Miss Marple untangles a mystery out of Dostoevsky.
When one of her prized white bulldogs is poisoned to death and another nearly so, Marya Afanasievna Tatishcheva, a general’s widow, summons her great-nephew, Reverend Mishenka Mitrofanii, to Drozdovka, her estate in Zavolzhsk. The bishop, unwilling to make the trip for such a minor disruption, sends clumsy, freckled Sister Pelagia instead. As a result, he misses not only the discovery she makes along the way—two headless corpses cast on a riverbank in neighboring Chernoyarsk province—but a good deal of the mind-bogglingly complex mayhem that follows. As her grandson and granddaughter, a pious provincial secretary, a photographic artist, a dueling seducer and a pair of wealthy neighbors dance attendance on the general’s widow, someone begins methodically winnowing her retinue both canine and human. Or perhaps not so methodically, since the means of death range from a rock to an ax to a photo tripod. Fans of Akunin’s fiendishly clever stories about Collegiate Assessor Erast P. Fandorin (The Death of Achilles, 2006, etc.) will know better than to accept the first solution to the crime spree, or perhaps the second.
The middling whodunit plays second fiddle to a remarkable achievement: not only to link The Brothers Karamazov to Agatha Christie, but to develop in considerable detail the grounds on which Dostoevsky’s tragedy and Christie’s escapist puzzles meet.