A Gentle Axe is the début crime novel from R. N. Morris. The author is also known as Roger Morris, whose contemporary urban novel Taking Comfort was published in 2006. To mark the début, an interview with the author can be found immediately below this post.
Let’s be upfront here. You can’t get away from the fact that this novel has a significant link to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (C&P). Police detective Porfiry Petrovich lives to see another day in fiction and moves to centre stage as the protagonist in Morris’s A Gentle Axe. But you don’t need to have read C&P to read this novel. Not at all.
This is a story that concentrates on Porfiry Petrovich’s life and his investigation into the complex web of lies, linkages and intrigue that makes A Gentle Axe.
In a nutshell: it’s 1866, it’s Tsarist Russia, it’s colder than you could imagine and a retired prostitute in desperate search of pickings comes across two dead bodies in Petrovsky park. One, a peasant, is hanging from a tree with a bloody axe tucked in his belt. The other is a dwarf with his skull fractured into two; his body is tightly packed into a suitcase. The plodding, contemplative, brooding detective Porfiry Petrovich takes on the case. But it’s obvious to Porfiry Petrovich that the hanging man did not kill the dwarf and then commit suicide. In his analytical mind the evidence does not stack up…
You have to have sympathy for Porfiry Petrovich. This is a man who lives for and through his work; his rooms are situated right next door to his office. When wishing for a moment’s peace and escapist relaxation, he can be disturbed by verbal kerfuffle on the other side of the door. On top of that, the reporting lines of all involved in an investigation are complex. There’s also quite a bit of early matrix management going on. This was one of the symptoms that led to the demise of Barings Bank, so you can understand that Porfiry Petrovich is pulled from all sides and has to employ some politics and cunning to pull in others.
The plot moves from the slums of 1866 St Petersburg to the homes of its privileged and wealthy. To try and summarise the plot would be foolish. This is a classic whodunnit where layer upon layer is opened for inspection in accordance with the timeline of Porfiry Petrovich’s detection, much like investigating the substance of a Russian doll. What you see is not at all what you get as the investigation delves deeper and deeper.
There are many strong and strongly depicted characters in this novel. Yaroslav Nikolaevich Liputin, the prokuror (who determines if a crime has been committed) takes his responsibilities to ego more than to heart, and is a hard man to convince. Lieutenant Salytov is man who takes no prisoners as he works, and tension between him and Porfiry Petrovich is resonant, leading to a confrontational crescendo.
But the character that is the most fun is the forensic pathologist, Dr Pervoyedov, who is forced to take the necessary equipment, all of it, to the body, rather than have the body transferred to a morgue, as was practice then. Arriving late, having laboriously trundled heavy equipment across town with the aid of an assistant, he announces his presence thus:
"Apologies, apologies, gentlemen," cried Dr Pervoyedov. "I was delayed by syphilis. Five new cases. Five!"
Yes, there is humour in this story; but much sadness too as Morris explores the lives of those who live in the slums and the lives of those forced to prostitute themselves to earn some sort of living. Even in the comfortable rooms where Veuve Clicquot is served to those who are fortunately blessed with affluence, a veneer exists that Porfiry Petrovich must strip off.
Expect to smile and laugh along the way, but also to feel of heavy weight of other emotions. If you expect to work out what’s going on before the talented, observant and insightful Porfiry Petrovich, then think again. This is a classic "who and why dunnit" and you’ll be far more than curious until the bitter end.
And for a crime fiction début, this really is the bee’s knees.