When the deceased founder of New Ararat, an island monastery in pre-Revolutionary Russia, is said to be terrorizing the monks, Sister Pelagia goes undercover to find the real culprit. A monk from New Ararat Monastery careens into the square before the bishop's house, grabbing Sister Pelagia and saying that Saint Basilisk, the long-ago founder of the monastery, has returned from the dead and is terrorizing the monks. The Bishop, skeptical of the claim and not wanting to interfere in the life of the monks, decides to send someone to the monastery secretly, disguised as an ordinary guest, who can report back what he or she finds. Sister Pelagia volunteers for the job, but the Bishop wants to send someone else to go: a young free-thinker named Aloysha, who he wishes to cultivate.
Aloysha agrees to visit the monastery--which houses first-class guest facilities--and writes back several times, reporting on the people he meets and the rumors he hears. Several monks have seen Saint Basilisk, who makes apocalyptic warnings that seem to indicate the downfall of the monastery. In his last letter to the Bishop, Aloysha says that he will be visiting the site where Saint Basilisk was last seen.
The letters quit coming. A few days later, the Bishop receives a note from the director of an insane asylum (also on the grounds of the monastery), saying that Aloysha has been admitted because of "acute mental disturbance."
The Bishop next sends Lagrange, a handsome colonel in the army, to assess Aloysha's situation and investigate the rumors. Lagrange meets with the director of the asylum, and then decides to investigate the same site Aloysha investigated: the little cabin by the lake where Basilisk was last seen, and where the boatman and his wife allegedly died of fright.
The news of Lagrange's suicide reaches the Bishop three days later.
Now the Bishop decides to send his most trusted adviser, Berdichevsky. But Berdichevsky, too, investigates the site and winds up in the asylum. The Bishop collapses and Sister Pelagia decides to take matters into her own hands. She leaves off her monastic robes, dresses as a rich widow, and arrives at the monastery as a distinguished guest. She gains entrance to the abbot's quarters by hinting that she might be persuaded to give a large donation to the monastery, and to the home of the director of the asylum, because she is an attractive single woman. While investigating the grounds around the asylum, she encounters the ghost of Basilisk himself. He attacks her and leaves her momentarily unconscious, then disappears again. She realizes that the slap that knocked her to the ground was made by something more solid than a ghost.
Her investigations lead her to a hermitage on a rocky island close to the monastery, where for centuries elderly monks have lived out their days in extreme mortification. Only three monks are allowed to live at the hermitage at any time; when one dies, another takes his place. Most of the hermits live on the island for less than a year; the common belief is that the holy elders are so close to God, he takes them quickly. But Pelagia suspects there's more to it than that.
Pelagia discovers that the most recent "monk" to join the hermitage isn't a monk at all. Unfortunately, the other monks' vows of silence, their inability to leave the island, and their complete isolation have made it impossible to tell anyone who he is. He is Aloysha, the first young man sent to the monastery by the Bishop. Thanks to another patient at the asylum, a brilliant but unstable physicist, Aloysha learned that the hermitage houses a meteorite with enough precious radioactive materials to make him both very famous and very, very rich.
Having been discovered, Aloysha escapes to sea with some of the radioactive materials in a pouch around his neck. But, in the epilogue, crowing over his escape and the fools he's left behind, he finds himself getting sicker and weaker, and finally slumping into the bottom of the skiff, dreaming of the riches that will be his when he finally makes it to his destination far, far away.
Best part of story, including ending:
The plot is great and the characters are intriguing,...but the style of the story is especially interesting. The author is a Russian, and he intentionally wrote the book in the style of the great 19th century Russian writers: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky (not coincidentally, since the story is set in the late 19th century). That's not to say the story is overlong or that the writing is off-putting, but simply that there is a Russian quality to the writing that brings special joy to those who love the golden age of Russian literature.
Best scene in story:
Sister Pelagia is looking for the holy elder Israel, who, she hopes, holds the secret to the goings on at the monastery. She lands on the holy island where only men are allowed--and even then, only three at a time--and enters a cave where she finds the corpses of all those holy monks who have died here. There isn't enough ground on this rocky crag for the monks to be buried; they are, instead, placed reverently one atop the next in this cave. But she must pass through the cave to find the monastic cell of Elder Israel.
Opinion about the main character:
Sister Pelagia is a spunky young woman who serves as the bishop's "right hand man." She is obedient to her religious superiors, but she's also got a mind of her own. When the bishop becomes incapacitated, she takes matters into her own hands and decides to investigate the crime scene on her own.