R N Morris is the author of 3 rather brilliant historical crime novels based on the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky and featuring Dostoevsky’s supersleuth Porfiry Petrovich. You’ll find my rather enthusiastic reviews here and here.
Following the recent publication of the third novel A Razor Wrapped in Silk, the author agreed to be interviewed by myself and the readers of my blog – hence the “collaborative” nature of this interview. This first part deals primarily with the supersleuth. Part Two, coming tomorrow, contains lots of tangents. Enjoy!
Linda: I have just started reading A Razor Wrapped In Silk and am enjoying it. I just wondered how you choose your subject matter for a novel.
Roger: I often think that subjects – or stories – choose writers, rather than writers choosing subjects. But in writing historical crime stories, I do a fair bit of research, and ideas for possible crimes come out of the understanding I build up of a particular time or milieu, as processed through the dark, warped imagination of a crime writer. Of course, because you’re intending to write a mystery story, you’re on the alert as you’re reading for things that will help you in that.
Lizzy: Why Dostoevsky and not Tolstoy?
Roger: The simple answer is that my idea was to write a detective novel using a character from a particular book, Crime and Punishment. That book was written by Dostoevsky. My idea was not “I’ll take a character from a nineteenth century Russian novelist, which one should I pick?” It was a very specific character, a very specific book. I suspect you might think I’m evading the question there but that’s the truth. It’s also true that I was drawn to Crime and Punishment, as a novel, in a very powerful way. The combination of a double axe murder and all those philosophical ruminations really appealed to me. My own taste, or aesthetic, seemed to be developing along similar lines. In contrast, for a long time I was rather daunted by the sheer length of Tolstoy’s great works. I am becoming more comfortable with long books now – and of course Tolstoy wrote a lot of shorter fiction too.
Lizzy: So Porfiry was the attraction. Let’s assume that you weren’t an historical expert before you started on the series, how did you get a handle on the historical setting?
Roger: I started with novels, particularly the novels of Dostoevsky, and other Russian writers of the period – including Tolstoy, of course. I also read general history books for background, as well as memoires and biographies. There were more specific history books, for instance one focusing on education in the tsarist era, another on the Russian factory in the nineteenth century, another on the changes that took place in St Petersburg over the period. I tended to chase down references in footnotes, so that if a book mentioned another book that looked as though it might be interesting, I would try to hunt it down. Of course, you can spend forever doing the research and never get round to writing the book, if you’re not careful. There has to be a point at which you say enough, and just get on with writing your book.
Lizzy: How do you guard against anachronisms?
Roger: There are two kinds of anachronisms, I suppose. On the one hand, there are simple factual ones – like Shakespeare’s striking clock in Julius Caesar; on the other, there are anachronistic attitudes given to characters from the past. The latter can happen inadvertently or deliberately, for example to make them more politically correct than they might really have been to make them more palatable to a modern audience. The first kind, the factual ones, are easier to guard against. I don’t think I’m likely to give Porfiry an iPhone, which would be the modern equivalent of Shakespeare’s mistake. The second kind of anachronism is more interesting, more subtle and more problematic. My stories arise from my understanding of the period. I’m not a professional historian, so that understanding is bound to be partial and flawed – at the very best. I am a storyteller. What I’m doing is using the past as a springboard to create stories that interest me and I hope will interest modern readers. Every generation re-invents the past through the prism of its own preoccupations and concerns. That’s inevitable. Also, you mustn’t forget that books like mine are works of the imagination. When you read a historical novel, whether it’s a historical crime novel or a historical romance or whatever, it is first and foremost an encounter with another person’s imagination, not an encounter with the past. If you think that invalidates the experience, then read another genre.
Carol: Has Tchaikovsky made an appearance in any of the Porfiry stories yet? If not, why not? Just wondering
Roger: If you read A Razor Wrapped In Silk, you’ll find the following in chapter 4: “students from the St Petersburg Conservatoire were to perform a series of interludes devised by their young professor of composition.” I had Tchaikovsky in mind when I wrote that. So, it’s an unnamed cameo but he is there.
James: How have your recent trips to Russia influenced the creation of the Porfiry series?
Roger: The terrible, shameful truth is that I wrote A Gentle Axe without ever having been to Russia. I did visit St Petersburg while I was working on A Vengeful Longing. For one thing, I thought, if I’m going to write more of these things I’d better go and have a look at the place. Plus, there were a number of specific technical things to do with the arrangement of buildings that I wanted to check out first hand. I didn’t do the usual tourist stuff. I just spent my time walking the streets, trying to soak it all in. For one of my days, I had a Russian guide, a guy called Andrey who had been on the same flight as me over from London, and who helped me get my bearings when we came out of the airport. We walked the length and breadth of the city, or so it felt. It was incredibly useful to have that day. When A Gentle Axe came out, I sent Andrey a copy and he complimented me on the “authentic St Petersburg atmosphere”, so I was very pleased.
James: When did you first read Crime and Punishment?
Roger: I first attempted it when I was far too young really. A precocious teenager. I was drawn by the combination of Russian angst and axe-murdering. I was not disappointed, though I think some of the philosophical and religious aspects of the book were probably lost on me. The blurb on the cover of the book promised a detective story, one of the first detective stories in fiction, I seem to remember. It isn’t really a detective story, more a “murderer story” as it is very much told from Raskolnikov’s point of view. But the scene depicting the actual murder is incredibly gripping and any modern crime writer would be proud to have written it.
James: There have been over 25 film adaptations of Crime and Punishment. Which is your favourite?
Roger: Ha-ha! Well, I’ve only seen one, which starred Ben Kingsley as Porfiry Petrovich. I didn’t think he was right at all. I deliberately avoided seeking out films of Crime and Punishment when I was working on my books because I didn’t want to get too influenced by someone else’s vision, particularly as cinema is such a powerfully visual medium. Also, my vision of Porfiry would inevitably have been influenced by whoever had been cast. With Ben Kingsley, I felt he was so far from how I see Porfiry that there was no real danger of that. I hardly ever thought of that film while doing my writing. But I will admit to being influenced by memories of Columbo, who was apparently inspired by Porfiry Petrovich! The inspiration came full circle, you could say.
Jen: If you could imagine your Porfiry novels in a TV mini-series (hope someone from the powers-at-be is reading this) who would you like to see portray Porfiry?
Roger: A number of people have suggested Timothy Spall. He’s a great actor and I think he would be magnificent in the role. Plus it’s about time he had a detective series vehicle.
Part 2 to follow tomorrow ……