Porfiry Petrovich, the police investigator who worked on the case involving the deranged student Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, is given another life in R.N. Morris's The Gentle Axe.
It is 1867 in St. Petersburg, Russia, on a cold winter morning. An elderly woman is scouring Petrovsky Park in search of a few sticks of firewood. What she finds instead is horrifying: a big, burly peasant hanging by a rope from a tree, with a blood-covered axe tucked into his belt. Nearby, she finds a suitcase. Packed inside is the body of a dwarf, with a deep head wound caused by an axe. Conventional wisdom says that the peasant killed the dwarf and then, in a paroxysm of guilt and remorse, killed himself. That scenario is good enough for everyone but Porfiry.
In a wonderfully atmospheric novel, Morris has created a world-weary protagonist in Porfiry, a man still exhausted from his last case, joined by a collection of absolutely believable characters to flesh out the novel. Mysteries abound and multiply in layers of characterization and narrative. Porfiry's investigation goes on, despite repeated attempts to take him off the case, and it leads him from the dregs of society to its most genteel heights. He follows clues, hunches, people, and stories to get to the bottom of the mystery--and when he does, it comes as a complete surprise, but one that makes perfect sense. This carefully written and entertaining novel will satisfy lovers of mystery, historical crime, and just plain good novels.
"Unfortunately, this Petrovich doesn't have that distinctive a personality and the plot doesn't offer much complexity or psychological depth. Still, the author does a good job of depicting Russian society in the 1860s." - Publishers Weekly.
"The Gentle Axe requires some concentration from the reader, but it will reward those who make the effort." - Booklist.
"Morris, actually a pseudonym for Roger Morris, author of the novel Taking Comfort, portrays Virginsky with particular empathy and sensitivity. Readers with an appetite for the occasional lurid scene will enjoy; for public libraries." - Library Journal.
"Morris's Petrovich is more like Sherlock Holmes with a psychological bent, and his novel is closer to genre pulp than to the classics. Russian Lit Lite." - Kirkus Reviews.
"Lush, and exceptionally compelling, but take your timeR. N. Morris's The Gentle Axe has a vast depth of Russian soul: mysterious, compassionate, and utterly irresistible." - Alan Furst.
"The Gentle Axe in many ways feels less like a modern tribute to Dostoyevsky than a translation of an overlooked novel by one of his contemporary imitators, transported into the present. Its a satisfyingly grisly yarn, mawkish and macabre CSI: St. Petersburg." - The New York Times.
"Morris is said by his publisher to have previously written a story that was made into an opera and another that was published as a comic book. That is perhaps not bad preparation for attempting 21st-century homage to 19th-century Russian literature, which always struck me as incorporating elements of both genres. Morris may have made a tactical error by inviting comparisons to Dostoevski's opus, but The Gentle Axe is a deftly plotted, enjoyable literary thriller. It's not another Crime and Punishment, but it's a novel that, once begun, you're likely to read all the way through." - The Washington Post.
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R.N. Morris was born in Manchester, England, in 1960 and now lives in North London with his wife and two children. He sold his first short story to a teenage girls magazine while still a student at Cambridge University, where he read classics. Making his living as a freelance copywriter, he has continued to write, and occasionally publish, fiction, including Taking Comfort (2006) written as Roger Morris.
One of his stories, The Devils Drum, was turned into a one-act opera, which was performed at the Purcell Room in Londons South Bank. Another, Revenants, was published as a comic book. A Vengeful Longing is the follow-up to his first novel written as R.N. Morris, The Gentle Axe.
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