St Petersburg crime solver is back

2008-04-01 00:00

Writing novels that create a fictional life for real characters is a popular genre. Henry James (whose fictional fate has been brilliantly chronicled in David Lodge’s The Year of Henry James), T.E. Lawrence, the Pankhursts and many others have had the treatment recently. But R.N. Morris has gone a step further. He has taken a fictional character created by someone else and created a new, extended fictional existence for him. Dostoevsky’s investigating magistrate from Crime and Punishment now finds himself back in St Petersburg in the 1860s with more crimes to solve.

Of course, this isn’t a new idea either. There have been plenty of attempts to write Sherlock Holmes stories, some successful, some not. Perhaps, like Holmes in Victorian London, Porfiry Petrovich so dominates the landscape of St Petersburg that it would be difficult to create a detective other than him for the late 19th century. Although it is unlikely that all those reading A Gentle Axe will be aficionados of Crime and Punishment.

It doesn’t matter. Morris’s St Petersburg is cold, snowy, atmospheric and sinister from the moment an elderly ex-prostitute finds two bodies in Petrovsky Park. One is a big, powerful man hanging from a tree, with a bloodied axe in his belt; the other, crammed into a suitcase at his feet, is a dwarf who has been killed with a blow from an axe. But Petrovich soon comes to see that the apparent murder and suicide scenario is not what it seems.

His superiors are reluctant to let him pursue the case, which comes to involve publishers of pornography, a prince, prostitutes, a desperate student — a nod here to Dostoevsky, whose earlier outing for Petrovich gets several mentions — and other characters and layers of society in the wintry Russian capital. It makes for a good, solid read. Not the kind of whodunit to be taken at a gallop, but one to enjoy at a steady pace.

Margaret von Klemperer

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