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The Gentle Axe [Paperback]

R. N. Morris
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

April 1 2008
Stumbling through Petrovsky Park one cold morning in search of firewood, an elderly woman makes a horrifying discovery. A burly peasant twirls in the wind, hanging from a bowed tree by a rope about his neck, a bloody axe tucked into his belt. Nearby, packed neatly into a suitcase, is the body of a dwarf, a deep axe wound splitting his skull in two.

It does not take long for the noted police investigator Porfiry Petrovich, still drained from his work on the case involving the deranged student Raskolnikov, to suspect that the truth of the matter is more complex that the crime scene might suggest. Why do so many roads lead to the same house of prostitution and the same ring or pornographers? Why do so many powerful interests seem intent on blocking his efforts? His investigation leads him from the squalid tenements, brothels, and drinking dens of the city's Haymarket district to an altogether more genteel stratum of society. As he gets deeper and deeper in, and the connections between the two spheres begin to multiply, both his anger and his terror mount.

Atmospheric and tense from its dramatic opening to its shocking climax, The Gentle Axe is a spellbinding historical crime novel, a book that explores the darkest places of the human heart with tremendous energy, empathy, and wit. As lucky as St. Petersburg residents are to have Porfiry Petrovich in public service, we are equally fortunate to have R.N. Morris on hand to chronicle his most challenging case to date.
--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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From Publishers Weekly

British author Morris deserves credit for a clever premise—using the deceptively stolid Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment (who helped inspire TV's Lieutenant Columbo), as the central focus of a period whodunit. A year and a half after the events of Crime and Punishment, two men turn up dead in St. Petersburg's Petrovsky Park. Petrovich, a senior member of the Department of the Investigation of Criminal Causes, quickly suspects that the official version of the tragedy—that one of the men killed the other and then took his own life—is mistaken. In the face of opposition from his superiors, the sleuth doggedly pursues clues that lead him to an underworld of brothels and pornographers. Unfortunately, this Petrovich doesn't have that distinctive a personality and the plot doesn't offer much complexity or psychological depth. Still, the author does a good job of depicting Russian society in the 1860s. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

It's December 1867, and winter has begun to ravage St. Petersburg when police investigator Porfiry Petrovich discerns that an apparent murder-suicide in Petrovsky Park may be more complicated than it seems. His insight is quickly rewarded. It's a murder-murder that leads Porfiry from the slums of the Haymarket District to Nevsky Prospect. He also discerns that his superiors are impeding his efforts to get to the bottom of the case. Author Morris has resurrected Porfiry from Crime and Punishment, and the brilliant and troubled Roskolnikov is still much on the investigator's mind. Morris' heavily atmospheric thriller treads much of the same literary ground Dostoevsky covered in his great novel. The wretched and squalid lives of the poor, the philosophy of Hegel, the growing rage of the lower classes, and the Russian national character--even the Russian soul--are all important elements of the world Morris re-creates. The Gentle Axe requires some concentration from the reader, but it will reward those who make the effort. Thomas Gaughan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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5.0 out of 5 stars What Fun May 2 2008
By Dave and Joe TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
I love a good murder mystery and I love a historical novel, nice to have two in one. This book is a great read. Morris manages to capture the time and the atmosphere - great story telling, wonderful mystery. Nice to have a new series to look out for.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  23 reviews
34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer March 30 2007
By Leonard Fleisig - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
nothing is more difficult than to understand him. Fyodor Dostoevsky.

It takes audacity for an author to choose a great novel or a well-known protagonist from another author's work as the starting off point for his own work. It takes an even greater amount of talent to pull it off. Many have tried and many have failed. There have been some notable successes, however. Jon Clinch's new novel, "Finn", which took a character from Mark Twain's Huck Finn is one. R.N. Morris' novel "The Gentle Axe" is another. He has taken St. Petersburg, Russia's police magistrate Porfiry Petrovich from the pages of Fyodor Dostoevsky's magnificent "Crime and Punishment" and placed him in charge of a new criminal investigation . "The Gentle Axe" manages to be an entertaining novel on its own while doing no disservice to the memory of one of the great novels of all time.

The story starts off with, no surprise here, dead bodies. An aging, former St. Petersburg prostitute finds two bodies in a snow-covered St. Petersburg park; a dwarf who has been hacked to death and stuffed into a suitcase and another man, a peasant, hanging from a nearby tree. Although Magistrate Petrovich suspects that this is a double-homicide his `superiors' are determined to consider this a murder-suicide and close the investigation. But, Petrovich plods on and what seemed at first blush to be a simple plot turns out to be a complicated look into St. Petersburg's `heart of darkness'. Petrovich's investigation takes him to a world of brothels, child pornographers, and poverty-stricken university students who have little food and less clothing but who are rich in nihilism and despair. It is one such student, Pavel Virginisky who capture Petrovich's imagination, a student whose every movement and whose every word invokes in Petrovich the memory of Raskolnikov whose confession he obtained in Crime and Punishment. The conversations between Petrovich and Virginsky form the emotional core of the book.

I very much enjoyed "The Gentle Axe". It has been almost thirty years since I've read "Crime and Punishment" so I cannot state with any certainty whether or not Morris has captured Petrovich's essence (or whether he tried to do so). However, Morris' Petrovich is well-drawn and with an appropriately dark Russian soul even if taken as a stand-alone character. The plot moves along very nicely. Morris has a nice descriptive touch and his portrayal of life amongst the demimonde in 19th-century St. Petersburg feels as if it is very accurate. The dialogue is sharp even if Petrovich and some of the other characters seem a bit florid and prone to excessive word play at times. I particularly liked the portrayal of the medical examiner whose sarcasm and mordant observations would serve him well in even the most modern crime lab. The only (mild) criticism for me came as the booked reached its conclusion. In many books of this genre there is a great revelatory moment where all the loose ends are tied up. In this instance I felt there was a lot revealed in very short order. It did appear to me to a bit too rushed. Again, this is a minor criticism.

As far as comparisons go, I think "The Gentle Axe" will likely be compared with some regularity to Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin series. That is actually a compliment to both authors even though there are some major differences between the two. I'd say that Akunin focuses more on the adventure with the psyche of Fandorin playing an important but secondary role, where Morris has focused more on the internal lives of the characters with the action playing an important but secondary role.

Last, Morris concludes his acknowledgments by stating: "[a]nd to Fyodor Dostoevsky, I can only apologize". I got the impression that this was Morris' tongue-in-cheek way of saying thanks for the character Fyodor and, by the way, I'm not trying to write a new "Crime and Punishment", just an entertaining novel. In that, Morris has succeeded very well. 4.5 Stars. L. Fleisig
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Modern Day Masterpiece April 3 2008
By RJ McGill - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
For readers that have been yearning for a book that speaks with an older, wiser voice, written in a long forgotten style, with a classic fluidity that can only be penned by a select few...Here ya' go! R. N. Morris has delivered a novel that embraces the historic elements of a true masterpiece, indulges the nostalgic desires of the quintessential reader and satisfies even the most discerning contemporary suspense-thriller lover!

Fyodor Dostoevsky first introduced readers to criminal investigator Porfiry Petrovich, in the 1866 novel Crime & Punishment. The book is centered around the murder of a pawnbroker and her half-sister by a deranged, impoverished student, named Raskolnikov. It is a year after this mind-numbing case that Morris picks up the story and takes the reader deep into the investigator's life and of course, a brand new murder mystery.

Searching for firewood in St. Petersburg's Petrovsky Park, a woman stumbles upon a dead body hanging from a tree. Nearby, a second body, that of a dwarf, is found in a suitcase. A laundry list of items were initially left at the scene, however, by the time investigator Petrovich is alerted, via an anonymous tip, anything of value is missing, thus complicating an already difficult case.

The search for answers will take the rotund detective through many facets of Russian society, from the dark, dank squalid apartments of the slums to the elegant, sprawling homes of the sophisticated elite. As the Park investigation continues, other, seemingly unrelated murders occur, forcing the investigation in a surprisingly new direction. To solve the Park case, Petrovich will have to think outside the box...connecting the dots of this disturbing case will prove to be even more difficult than the case that had defined him.

Morris unravels the layers of St. Petersburg and its residents, slowly, like a delicious, blooming onion, allowing the reader to savor the flavor and enjoy each and every bite. There are strong, no-non-sense characters and those that bring a lighter, at times, humorous element to the story, thus eliciting a myriad of emotions from the reader. Gentle Axe is not littered with red herrings and preemptive spoilers, instead it is based on a clever plot, written with artistic flair. The characters are drawn with the kind of intimate detail one ascertains from a photograph and the settings are constructed with the artistic eye of a painter. The author took a significant, yet calculated risk- borrowing the lead character, setting and back story from the famous work of a beloved writer, which could easily garner a host of negativity. However, creating a sequel that feels Dostoevsky-like, that reads like a Morris novel is a note-worthy accomplishment, indeed!

A spell-binding novel that will definitely keep you up late...reading! And you'll want to share this one with friends and coworkers -it's really that good!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jovial, page-turning Russian moroseness April 3 2008
By 24mark - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I adored this novel, and I'm so pleased that there will be a sequel with the same protagonist. Morris provides good plot, great atmosphere, and characters that are several levels above those found in most novels labeled as mysteries. Rather than skim over paragraphs about walking through the streets or climbing staircases, I found myself rapt in the small bits of characterization and setting that Morris includes in such passages. This is a great find for lovers of historical crime.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Crime & Punishment: SVU Jan. 19 2009
By EddieLove - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
After a century and a half wait, we finally get the pulse-pounding sequel to Crime & Punishment -- or at least, this cunning little literary conceit disguised as a compelling thriller. Maybe the period detail isn't as authentic as a Boris Akunin novel, but it's a respectable cousin. The involving mystery moves briskly, with well-drawn characters. Best of all are some long exchanges of perfectly crafted dialogue you may find yourself re-reading. Superb.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "It is a kind of Siberia of the soul." June 11 2008
By E. Bukowsky - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
R. N. Morris's "The Gentle Axe" is set in St. Petersburg, Russia, in December 1866. Approximately a year and a half earlier, Porfiry Petrovich relentlessly interrogated a student named Raskolnikov until the suspect broke down and confessed. "The Gentle Axe" opens in Petrovsky Park, where an aging former prostitute named Zoya Nikolaevna Petrova braves the biting cold in order to collect a basket of firewood. She keeps trudging along in spite of her aches and pains because of her fierce devotion to a young prostitute named Lilya and Lilya's adorable daughter, Vera, who live with her. Suddenly, Zoya stumbles upon a horrific scene--the body of a "big brute" hangs from a birch trunk and the corpse of a dwarf lies folded in a suitcase. She searches the two victims for money and anything that she can sell, and then quickly darts away without alerting the police.

Next, we meet the chain-smoking and cerebral Porfiry Petrovich, a magistrate in the Department of the Investigation of Criminal Causes. After he receives an anonymous tip stating that there has been a murder in Petrovsky Park, he convinces the police to conduct a search. They soon discover the bodies that Zoya had encountered earlier. Porfiry's shortsighted and inept colleagues want to declare this an open and shut case of murder/suicide, but Porfiry's keen eye, sharp senses, and well-honed instincts tell him that there is nothing straightforward or obvious about the deaths of a dwarf named Stepan Sergeyevich Goryanchikov and a yardkeeper named Borya.

Morris ably describes the social and economic conditions in St. Petersburg during the late nineteenth century. A strict caste system buffered the upper classes from the indigent wretches who barely had enough food to sustain life or enough fuel to ward off the frigid winds. R. N. Morris has created a lively and colorful cast of characters whose connection to one another unfolds little by little: Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky, an emaciated student who is too proud to ask his estranged father for the financial support that he so desperately needs; Lilya Ivanovna Semenova, a young woman who must sell herself to feed her family; Anna Alexandrovna, a wealthy widow who was closely acquainted with both Borya and Goryanchikov; Osip Maximovich Simonov, an arrogant man who runs a publishing house and may be hiding vital information from Porfiry; Ilya Petrovich Salytov, a short-tempered police lieutenant who resents Porfiry and tries to thwart him at every turn; and two actors, Ratazyayev and Govorov, who both play pivotal roles in what turns out to be a thorny and multilayered mystery.

Morris imbues his strange and complex tale with a healthy dose of black humor, and he skillfully explores the hypocrisy of those who hide their malicious nature behind a veneer of respectability. In addition, the author demonstrates an appreciation for the unique mix of spirituality and materialism in the Russian psyche. Porfiry is a fascinating sleuth: a skilled psychologist, observant criminalist, tenacious pursuer, and ultimately, the voice of conscience and reason at a time when justice was elusive. His nemesis is a perverted individual who has concocted a senseless rationale for committing a series of monstrous deeds. Although the novel is marred by a tendency to talkiness and a somewhat contrived ending, "The Gentle Axe" is worth reading for its indelible portrayal of Porfiry Petrovich and the dismal landscape that he inhabits--a true "Siberia of the soul."
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