Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Review: The Gentle Axe, R. N. Morris

Penguin Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-14-311326-3 (pbk.). 305 pages.

The Gentle Axe is historical crime fiction set in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1866. It's roots, though, are a year and a half earlier in another book by a different author, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Morris has taken Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate, as his central character. Also coming over from Crime and Punishment are Nikodim Fromich, the chief of police, Zamyotov, the head clerk, and Ilya Petrovitch Salytov, the hostile, aggressive, police lieutenant.

The beginning is a pretty effective hook. It is winter and an old woman looking for wood in a park finds a large man dead and hanging from a birch tree. Nearby, nearly covered in snow, is a suitcase containing a dead dwarf who apparently suffered a fatal head wound from the bloody axe in the belt of the hanged man. Zoya, the old woman, loots the bodies, finding a substantial amount of money which she takes home to her surrogate daughter Lilya. Though a prostitute, Lilya has a better sense of right an wrong than Zoya and sends an anonymous note to the police telling them where to find the bodies.

Petrovich is not convinced that this is the murder-suicide it appears to be and is determined to find the truth despite the opposition of his superiors.

This is the first book I've finished in 2009 and I'm happy that the year began with such a good read. The Gentle Axe is well paced and intricately plotted without dragging or becoming convoluted to the point of distraction. The reader expects a lot from a book that opens with a dead dwarf in a suitcase in the snow and Morris keeps the story moving and the reader's interest with the introduction of additional plot lines that begin to weave together. Petrovich is a marvelous character and Morris has done well in staying true to Dostoevsky's portrayal but developing his distinct personality and investigative techniques.

St. Petersburg itself becomes a character as well. Morris does a remarkable job describing the evirons of the city in vivid detail. The degraded living conditions of the poorer elements of St. Petersburg might remind you of the writings of Charles Dickens.

The Gentle Axe is an excellent read presenting interesting historical detail, well drawn characters, and a compelling mystery. I recommend it highly.