Review: The Gentle Axe

Posted 29 February, 2012 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

The Gentle Axe
By: R.N. Morris

Just before Christmas, in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1866, police investigator Porfiry Petrovich faces his most challenging murder case since the events made famous by F. Dostoevsky in the novel Crime and Punishment-a case with disturbing parallels and even darker implications

Stumbling through Petvosky Park one cold morning in search of firewood, an elderly woman makes a horrifying discovery. A burly peasant twirls in the wind, hanging from a bowed tree by a rope about his neck, a bloody axe tucked into his belt. Nearby, packed neatly into a suitcase, is the body of a dwarf, a deep axe wound splitting his skull in two.

It does not take long for the noted police investigator Porfiry Petrovich, still drained from his work on the case involving the deranged student Raskolnikov, to suspect that the truth of the matter is more complex than the crime scene might suggest. Why do so many roads lead to the same house of prostitution and the same ring of pornographers? Why do so many powerful interests seem intent on blocking his efforts? His investigation leads him from the squalid tenements, brothels, and drinking dens of the city’s Haymarket district to an altogether more genteel stratum of society. As he gets deeper and deeper in, and the connections between the two spheres begin to multiply, both his anger and his terror mount.

I’ve read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment years ago but the details are quite hazy to me now beyond the basic plot points (a sign that I need to re-read the novel sometime soon ^_~). I came across R.N. Morris’s works on GoodReads and thought it was interesting that he chose to write a mystery series featuring a character from Crime and Punishment. The Gentle Axe is the first novel in this series featuring Porfiry Petrovich and set in St. Petersburg.

Morris did a wonderful job in presenting Petrovich’s St. Petersburg of the mid-nineteenth century and the life that he led. This case brought him face-to-face with prostitutes, desolute families, well-off individuals, princes and actors. Some of the situations that these secondary characters and suspects faced were indeed sad realities that nineteenth century Russians faced, but at some moments I also realised that they were harsh situations that were rather universal for the times. I did think that Virginsky was a little too close a character to Crime and Punishment‘s Raskolnikov in terms of situation in life (student living in poverty, smart in his own way)–it seemed that Morris intentionally sketched out this character the way he did because this novel took place about a year or so after the events of the Doestoevsky novel. However, unlike Raskolnikov, Virginsky’s fate was much better off, if not rather sad still.

The murder mystery case itself was an interesting one, starting off with the crime scene itself. The steps taken to unravel the mystery and find the perpetrator is very procedural–like any other murder mystery novel–and brings Petrovich all across St. Petersburg to figure out what happened. In the process, he not only has to deal with sullen colleagues and impatient officials wanting to close the case but underneath the surface there’s a personal agitation that Petrovich is trying to overcome. Because the focal point of this novel is the mystery, there’s not a lot of venturing beyond Petrovich’s professional life, which isn’t too big of a deal.

Overall, The Gentle Axe was a mystery novel that really keeps your attention throughout. There’s unfortunate casualties that happen along the way as Petrovich strides to resolve the case; Morris does a wonderful job in tying up the story at the end and bringing elements that even I initially dismissed during my read. The procedural nature of the plot does detract an emotional element away from the overall story but I did find myself caring for some of the secondary characters nonetheless. I would highly recommend this novel for fans of the mystery genre and for those who have read Crime and Punishment.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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