Nothing like the end of a year to finish a series – in this case, the quartet of historical crime novels featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the investigator originally brought to the page by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Each of the novels has been set in a different season and so now it is spring, 1872, and the Winter Canal in St Peterburg is beginning to thaw. A body , trapped beneath the ice all winter, rises to the surface and the ensuing investigation leads Petrovich and his sidekick, Virginsky, into the path of the terrorist cells who are seeking to foment revolution against the tsar.
It is a life-threatening investigation for both men. Virginsky finds himself torn between two masters. Secretly sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, he only becomes serious about cracking the case when a terrorist outrage causes the deaths of 5 innocent children. He decides that the only way to make inroads into the case, is to infiltrate one of the terrorist cells. So he and Petrovich pull a stunt that in its turn has unforeseen consequences ….
At this point, after an admittedly slow start, the novel becomes very interesting indeed. Virginsky, for all his atheistic arrogance and worldly bravado, is quite simply out of his depth. The clue is in his name. An amateur even in a drinking den, he has neither the wiles nor the wherewithall to convince ruthless terrorists that he isn’t a plant. So his life really does hang in the balance and it’s this that gives the novel its tension.
Not the book to read if you’re looking for a quick pageturning whodunnit. The substance is to be found in the theological, political and intellectual arguments. This may be St Petersburg 1972 and the objective of the forthcoming revolution the overthrow of the Tsar, but the arguments for and against violent political actions of this sort are universal and timeless. As indeed are the ramifications of such actions. Revolutionary zeal, often conceived in the theoretical arguments of the intelligensia, rarely looks so attractive once it has translated to the ugliest of actions on the ground.
Yet, Morris ends this novel on a conciliatory note, one which I cannot pass unremarked as I found the penultimate paragraph surprisingly touching and for the first time I’d like to know more of Virginsky.
So ends a marvellous series, the first that I have read and reviewed in toto. I’ll return to it, for sure, as I’m sure it will reward rereading, such is the depth of the historical tapestry woven. Before that, however, there is a hint to be taken from the author’s acknowledgements.
My greatest debt is to Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. Porfiry Petrovich is his character, of course, not mine. If this book encourages even one reader to turn to Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment for a brush with the original Porfiry, then perhaps I will be forgiven for my shameless purloining.
Revisiting the original Crime and Punishment and acquainting myself with the other Dostoevskian masterpieces on which Morris has based his series will keep me occupied though I can’t help but wonder what Morris will pen next.