A Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris
2 August, 2012
So after reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, I was possessed with an urge to start reading Russian literature. But I suddenly got scared because you know, they’re complicated and difficult and I’ve had a big fat copy of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace staring at me accusingly on my bed side table for over a year now. And so I decided I wanted to try something a little easier, go about it from the side, if you will. So I picked up A Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris. Or rather, I picked it up again.
You see, a few years ago I read and loved Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Now Dostoevsky is a writer with whom I’ve had a long history, mostly a hate-hate one all because of one book, The Brothers Karamazov. I fancied myself a serious reader as a teenager (who doesn’t?) and as my father (a Marxist) had a copy of this at home, I read it. And I got confused. I didn’t know who was who. I skipped all the philosophical and agricultural bits so loved by Russian writers. I thought it was boring. You get the picture. But I wanted to know why it was so great. So I tried again. And again. I read it all 3 times. And each time it defeated me. So I gave up on Dostoevsky.
But then I picked up Crime and Punishment at a bargain book shop in my final years as a student. I still wanted to love Russian literature mainly because Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was such a fine novel. And although I started it with trepidation, I soon discovered that Crime and Punishment was an immensely readable book. And I loved it.
In A Gentle Axe, R.N. Morris has done a brave thing. He has taken the police detective Porfiry Petrovitch from Crime and Punishment and inserted him into a historical mystery written in the style of Dostoevsky. Does it work? Yes, it does. At times, it’s rather slow but the detail is there and frankly you wouldn’t be able to tell you were reading a book by a non-Russian writer (unless you are an expert, of course).
So in Porfiry Petrovitch’s first case after pursuing Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, he is presented with two bodies. One stuffed in a leather suitcase and the other hanging from a tree in Petrovsky Park. A prostitute is arrested on a charge of theft and a well-known actor is missing. What do these separate events have in common and what is the deal with a suspicious man touting pornographic cards of young girls? It’s deep mid-winter in St. Petersburg and Porfiry Petrovitch slowly and surely wades through all the superficial information to find the heart of the problem. And who he finds is another young, destitute student lacking a soul.
My first attempt at reading this book came straight after I finished Crime and Punishment. It was too much. I was Dostoevskied out and had to abandon it. But I’m glad I gave it a second go because I really enjoyed reading this tale. Yes, the mystery almost felt secondary to the setting. Yes, the dénouement seemed a little contrived. But you know what, I didn’t care. I was back in this decaying world of Dostoevsky’s with its penniless students, so serious about the state of the world and their souls, pompous government bureaucrats, the tragic prostitutes, sullen yardkeepers and pawnshop owners. And it’s a great way to get back into my Russian summer of reading.
Morris’ style is faultless. He mimics Dostoevsky perfectly and yet, towards the end, I had to race through to find out how Porfiry Petrovitch would unmask the murderer. Morris and his Porfiry had charmed me. And so I’m looking forward to reading more in this series and will be searching out book two, A Vengeful Longing.