In response to the disappointment I expressed in my review of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, a reader alerted me (please note: not ‘recommended’) to the existence of a series of crime novels by R. N. Morris set in 19th century St Petersburg, and featuring Porfiry Petrovich. The detective from Crime and Punishment is a great character, and he’s the inspiration behind other fictional detectives, such as Columbo and Inspector Rush in Nigel Williams’ The Wimbledon Poisoner, so it makes sense for somebody to take up his further adventures. I was, however, rather reluctant to read them, probably because of my bad experience with Child 44, but eventually I took the plunge, got hold of a copy of A Gentle Axe (Faber and Faber, 2007), took it to Naples with me, brought it back unopened (too much proper Dostoevsky to think about), and finally got down to it last week. I have also been re-reading Crime and Punishment itself, so I’ve had chance to compare the new version to the original.
As a historical crime novel, I think A Gentle Axe is perfectly fine. There are a few errors, but I’ll overlook those. It’s readable, and the plot works quite well. By the denouement the body count is getting so high that there can’t be much doubt who the murderer is, but if you know your Dostoevsky, you’ll have identified him in any case the first time he appears as the most obvious suspect — it’s quite clear which character he’s based on, and it is a pretty unimaginative choice.
And this is the overall problem: it uses the Dostoevskian links in a way that it just too thin and too obvious. The text is peppered with names of Dostoevsky’s characters, but they’re generally just names. One of the initial murder victims is called Goryanchikov, but he bears no resemblance to the narrator of Notes from the House of the Dead, so for anyone who hasn’t read Dostoevsky it’s meaningless, but for anyone who has, it’s a real distraction. Equally, Prince Bykov has nothing in common with his charmless namesake from Poor Folk. You start to wonder what on earth these references are for, and the answer appears to be: nothing. Occasionally, a more complex set of references surfaces; Virginsky is a combination of Raskolnikov and the underground man, which is interesting, but his name, taken from one of the revolutionaries in Demons, doesn’t relate to anything.
Attempts to incorporate Dostoevskian themes into the plot also misfire. The proposition, attributed to Ivan Karamazov, that ‘if there is no immortality of the soul, then everything is permitted’, becomes a plot device which is central to the denouement, but it’s used in such a trivial way that it resembles a playground game more than a route into the psychology of a murderer. Clearly, it could have been the latter as well, if the character had been well drawn enough to make that plausible, but the use of the Dostoevskian prototype appears to be a substitute for, rather than a facet of, characterization, so there’s no depth to allow such ideas to develop.
And then there’s Porfiry himself, who really is a pale imitation. I only finished the book this morning, and all I remember about Porfiry is that he has pale eyelashes and smokes too much. I doubt I’d have remembered the eyelashes either, if they weren’t already part of his characterization in Crime and Punishment. But there’s none of the richness of the original in A Gentle Axe, none of the comic buffoonery of Dostoevsky’s Porfiry, which is so apparently incongruous amidst the tension of Crime and Punishment, but plays an essential role in bringing Raskolnikov to confession.
Most perplexing of all, there’s practically nothing left of Porfiry’s main trait as a detective — his uncanny ability to know everything, even before the murderer is fully aware of it. There is a bit of this, but in relation to the wrong suspect, so it functions mainly as a red herring, and again the Dostoevskian reference takes the place of proper plot development. But it destroys Porfiry as a character. He isn’t infallible at all, and he doesn’t have any impact on the murderer’s inner life — he doesn’t even have much contact with him, because he doesn’t identify him until quite a late stage. So again, what’s left of the original, apart from the name?
Needless to say, after this rather feeble start, I don’t think I’ll be hurrying to get my hands on the remaining books in the series.