The search has begun. Who will occupy the place that has been reserved for Michael Dibdin these last 10 years? Returning to Faber and Faber, the same stable that bred Zen, seemed like a reasonable move and so it was that I encountered R N Morris.
There’s been a lot of blog buzz about Morris’s historical crime series. In a courageous move, he has resurrected Dostoevsky’s supersleuth Porfiry Petrovich. Of course, my intention was to reread Crime and Punishment before embarking on A Gentle Axe. But then I discovered a second novel is to be published imminently and Faber and Faber kindly sent me a review copy …. Dostoevsky was put on the back burner and any comparisons I might make thus reduced to what I (mis)remember from 30 years ago!
Now what would that be? An impoverished student, a pawnbroker, an axe murderer and a detective willing to bide his time and draw out his criminal. Precious little really but it is all present and correct in Morris’s A Gentle Axe. Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, dirty, cramped and sordid is also colourfully portrayed in Morris’s novel. The murder victims are found in the frozen expanse of Petrovsky Park; one hanging from a tree with a bloody axe tucked in his trousers; the other (a dwarf) stuffed in a suitcase, his skull split open by an axe blow. Murder and suicide then? Far too obvious for Petrovich and his search for the real answer takes him through the various echelons of St. Petersburg society exposing the seemier side of Russian life (prostitution, pornography, hypocrisy) in a graphic but not voyeuristic way. When the impoverished Raskolnikov-equivalent student makes his entrance, Petrovich sees him, not as a murder suspect, but as someone who needs to be saved from hunger, poverty and himself. While he knew that Raskolnikov was evil, so he feels that this student is not and, instead of arresting him, gives him a pair of watertight boots.
While A Gentle Axe is good, A Vengeful Longing is even better! The writing is richer. The characters are fleshed out and in Petrovich’s case there is less reliance on his fluttering eyelids and chain smoking (which, I felt, was overdone in the first novel),
A Vengeful Longing is divided into three sections; each beginning with a murder and an obvious suspect. The modus operandi different in each case: death by chocolate (!), death by gunshot and death by stabbing. It is only while interviewing the second suspect that Petrovich detects the whiff of a link and from there on he’s on the scent, towing with him an inspecting magistrate in training. THe trainee’s naivety (what more than one case at a time?), shock at what he sees and questioning of Petrovich’s methods provide a foil to contrast against the experience and political astuteness of the master – even if the mind games played are sometimes brutal. Yet the methods of Salytov, the impatient, bully boy cop, serve only to highlight Petrovich’s comparative enlightenment.
St. Petersburg remains a moral sumpf and this time its decadence stinks to high-heaven – quite literally. It’s high summer and the city’s sanitation is in crisis. It is disgusting and Morris does not shirk from entirely realistic descriptions of flooded basement flats where the inhabitants are dying of cholera. All this while a few streets away the aristocracy enjoy a life of luxurious excess.
There is much more to discuss, including the integration of the heavier Dostoevskian elements, faith vs atheism for example. Morris also cleverly inserts an episode from Tolstoy’s life, who handed over his bachelor diaries to his wife to be. However, for all the homage, it’s important to emphasise that these novels really do work well in their own right. As history they transport the reader back to the St. Petersburg of the 1860’s, as crime they’re intriguing and intelligent and, last but definitely not least, as entertainment, they’re grrrrrrrreat!
A Gentle Axe
A Vengeful Longing (to be published 7.02.2008)