The strength, the backbone, of A Vengeful Longing
lies in the character of investigating magistrate Porfiry Petrovich. Snatched
from the pages of Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, where he is
pencil-sketched as the nemesis of murderer Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov,
Petrovich comes brilliantly alive in Morris's hands. Admittedly Dostoevsky did
hint at Petrovich's Zen-like qualities while he patiently waited for Raskolnikov
to catch up and catch on to the fact that the magistrate had known of his guilt
almost from the beginning.
But Morris shows us that Petrovich is not just a smart man, he is a wise and serene man who enjoys the game and who knows how to make his adversaries turn their own weaknesses against themselves. This is never-so-evident as when he is trying to rid his office of the pesky flies that are a by-product of the fetid canal that runs outside his office window. He puts out a saucer of honey and when asked why he would want to feed the pests he confesses that the honey is laced with liquor. He then explains, "The flies will eat the honey and become intoxicated. They will then become sleepy and erratic. This will make them easier to catch. And kill." His inquisitor asks, "But why not simply lace the honey with poison?" Petrovich replies, "Ah!...Where's the sport in that?" Thus as a foil to whoever is the perpetrator (no spoilers here) in A Vengeful Longing Petrovich becomes a chubby spider patiently waiting for this murdering fly to get caught in a web that the fly himself has woven.
It is a tactic that has a tendency to drive Petrovich's associates and superiors to distraction. With the exception of Petrovich's young trainee, Pavel Virginsky, these are ham fisted, shortsighted public servants who can only see that three apparently-unrelated murders have occurred, so they pester Petrovich because he has solved none of them. Petrovich on the other hand, with his Zen vision of the cosmos, sees a connectedness, a pattern, that is indiscernible to others and he's happy to bide his time, following up on leads but making no assumptions until enough data is available to make an arrest.
While characterization is a commanding aspect of Morris's book the author is equally adept at grounding the story with a powerful sense of place and time. He depicts the political atmosphere of mid 19th century Imperial Russia using a light, almost painterly, hand. Subtle hints to the era's diverse attitudes toward the Tsar and government in general lie buried within the dialog. More explicit descriptions of the sweltering summer heat plus lengthier passages portraying the unspeakably bleak living conditions of the very poor who suffered the brunt of a seasonal cholera outbreak are blended seamlessly into the narrative, providing a fullness that animates the story.
Finally, it's the breadth of character, plot, dialog and narrative that gives A Vengeful Longing its genius. Oh yeah, that plus it's a darn good whodunit.
This review is from the July 11, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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