The Cleansing Flames, the fourth book in author R.N. Morris' series featuring Russian Magistrate Porfiry Petrovich, finds spring creeping upon St. Petersburg. But as the snow and ice recede, the fires begin to burn. Fresh on the heels of revolution in Paris, pockets of radicals in Russia's capital are sowing the seeds of revolution. Part of their manifesto includes setting fires to notable properties in order to burn down, literally and figuratively, the symbols of the perceived failures of Tsar Alexander II's reforms.
Amidst this chaos, Porfiry and his partner, junior magistrate Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky, are called upon to investigate a body found in the newly thawed Winter Canal. An anonymous tip to Porfiry alerts him to the possibility there are larger implications to the body than a simple murder, implications which lead Porfiry's investigation in the direction of the radicals at the heart of the city's unrest. Virginsky, for his part, takes advantage of a random meeting with a man believed to be one of the revolutionaries by using the connection to infiltrate the group. The further he gets into the group, however, the more he finds himself sympathizing with their cause. As events continue to unfold Virginsky's loyalties are put to the test, forcing him to choose between his head and his heart.
The relationship between Porfiry and Virginsky has always been at the core of the St. Petersburg series. It is only in The Cleansing Flames, however, that what developed over the course of the series as a relationship wherein Porfiry acted as a mentor to Virginsky has finally reached the point where Virginsky feels confident enough to assert himself as an equal. In that regard, author Roger Morris quite cleverly uses Virginsky's "rebellion" against the "authority" of Porfiry to personalize the broader general rebellion of the populace against the authority of the Tsar. Rebellion, personal and societal, is a concept that is both timeless (it's virtually a rite of passage for every teenager) and timely (the recent grassroots uprisings in Egypt and Libya), and in The Cleansing Flames Morris does a skillful job of looking at it from both the micro and macro perspectives.
I suppose I'm a bit slow on the uptake at times, but it wasn't until The Cleansing Flames that it finally dawned on me that Morris was setting each book during a different season, in this case spring. Looking back, it makes for an interesting connecting thread that, while allowing each book its own feel, in the end further ties together the arc of the four books. It's an arc which unfortunately has come to an end, as The Cleansing Flames is billed as the last book in the St. Petersburg series. And this is truly unfortunate, because Morris quite skillfully brought both the character of Porfiry Petrovich (and by extension Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment), as well as historical fiction in general alive for me in a way I had never truly appreciated before. Though I am sad to see Porfiry and Virginsky reach the end of the road, I take comfort in the knowledge Morris is busy at work on a new series.