Dostoevsky Meets Gogol in a Seamy, St Petersburg Murder Mystery ; the Wednesday Book
Rounding, Virginia, The Independent (London, England)
A GENTLE AXE
By R N Morris
FABER & FABER, [pound]12.99.
In December 1866, two bodies are discovered in St Peters-burg's Petrovsky Park. It looks as though a dwarf has been killed with an axe and stuffed in a suitcase, and that his murderer, in a fit of remorse, has hanged himself from a nearby tree. That's how it seems to the old woman who finds the bodies (along with 6,000 roubles and a pack of pornographic playing cards), and just about everyone else.
The investigating magistrate is not so sure. He is no ordinary investigator, his most famous case having been that of the double murder committed by Raskolnikov, the student antihero of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. His name is Porfiry Petrovich, and RN Morris has brilliantly appropriated him from Dostoevsky's novel as the central character of A Gentle Axe. Now, 18 months on from the case and still haunted by it, he looks as portly and affable as ever, but has a knack of knocking his interviewees off balance by blinking his eyelashes, which are "blond to the point of transparency".
Morris's recreation of the seamy side of 19th-century St Petersburg is vivid and convincing: the forbidding tenements, ominous stairwells and dank courtyards familiar to readers of Dostoevsky, which serve as a backdrop to a cast of idiosyncratic characters. …