The Gentle Axe Paperback – 2008
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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
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!
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."
While an historical mystery, the story progresses more like a modern-day police procedural. It begins one wintry day with a large peasant hanging from a tree in a park. Nearby, a suitcase lies with a dwarf in it, his head cut open by an axe which is found on the hanging man's belt. Is it a simple case of murder and suicide? From this beginning the story progresses to more murders, bringing Porfiry across the wide swath of the people and sites of the then Russian capital.
It would not be fair to compare this novel to one by Dostoyevsky, suffice it to say it is a real suspense filled mystery, intricately plotted and completely enjoyable. More important, it is recommended.