Friday, January 30, 2009

A Vengeful Longing by R.N. Morris (book review)

Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is not just literary fiction. Many argue that it’s also the first great detective novel. Porfiry Petrovich, the St. Petersburg magistrate who “catches” Raskolnikov doesn’t jump out of windows, get in chases on horseback, or fight anyone. He’s as much psychologist as policeman and takes as much of an interest in rescuing Raskolnikov’s soul as he does in arresting and punishing the young man. I’m not sure why it took a hundred and forty years for any writer to take on the task of extending the detective Porfiry’s log of investigations beyond Crime and Punishment, but I’m glad that R.N. Morris did.

Morris’s first Porfiry adventure, The Gentle Axe, was so successful that the publisher has authorized two sequels. Now that I’ve finished Morris’s second installment, A Vengeful Longing, I was happy to hear the other day that he’s completed his first draft of the third, A Razor Wrapped in Silk. If you’re a follower of detective fiction, you probably know that the measure of any series is generally not the first book. I shouldn’t say that anyone can write a single crime novel. Most of us can’t. Still it’s really the second that signals readers that the author has managed to create a detective character and a world rich enough to sustain multiple adventures.

I don’t think there’s any question that Dostoyevsky’s Porfiry, really a much more minor character mesasured by scene space in Crime and Punishment than most people realize, had that potential. It’s more a matter of “Who would have the guts to invoke Dostoyevsky?” in a crime series. In Gentle Axe, Morris did so with refreshing brio. He started with a geometric puzzle: a prostitute wanders into a park and finds a large man hanging from a tree next to a suitcase that turns out to contain the mutilated corpse of a dwarf. Porfiry follows a lead to a starving student and there’s a touching scene in which the Magistrate gets Virginsky a bowl of soup from the exploitative landlady. The reader quickly realizes that the geometric puzzle that opens the story works on several levels. Morris is also transposing the elements of Crime and Punishment. Prostitute, axe, and student on the verge of either redemption or oblivion all get rearranged in such a way that Morris’s Porfiry both homages Dostoyevsky’s version and creates enough space for the author to bring the touches necessary to let Porfiry move forward on his own. Not surprisingly, Gentle Axe amounts to a second chance for Porfiry to rescue rather than convict the potential represented in Raskolnikov.

In A Vengeful Longing, Virginsky becomes Robin to Porfiry’s Batman. In the process, Morris moves out of the territory of being a Dostoyevsky “impressionist” to developing something with more of an energy of its own. For one, he liberates Porfiry the character from Dostoyevsky the writer. Where Dostoyevsky grew increasingly anti-western and conservative politically and religiously after 1867, Morris stays with Porfiry’s humanism. As Porfiry works his way through a series of seemingly unrelated murders (a doctor’s wife and her autistic child are poisoned with French chocolates, an army officer is killed with a dueling pistol, a tailor is stabbed) he insists on understanding the psychology of both the victims and the most likely suspects. In each case, he works his way through a guilt racked tour of the demons haunting educated Russian society but refuses to believe that every individual with demons is necessarily a murderer. In the meantime, he teaches the idealistic and gentle Virginsky the toughness necessary to be a detective, a source of order and moral rectitude in a Russian society that appears capable of neither.

One of the things that Morris brings to 19th Century St. Petersburg that Dostoyevsky could not is the building sense of the coming revolution. With surprisingly few details, Morris paints a haunting portrait of a doomed city and culture. He artfully uses the image of the Neva river, polluted by the dumping of human waste directly into its waters, to show how the indifference of an immobile bureaucracy and a dissipated ruling class will inevitably flow back to them. The reader readily sees how the injustices of 19th century St. Petersburg where a man loses six daughters to the cholera passed by the river’s pollution and winds up in an insane asylum for writing a letter to the Court about it will never be containable. Symbolically, the pollution of the river runs through the plot in significant ways as Porfiry repeatedly sends letters about the stench from the river to bureaucrats who never seem to answer.

At points, Morris also stirs in bits of Gogol with allusions to a civil servant paying to put a fur collar on an overcoat and an oddly modern scene where a pack of anonymous bureaucrats get their revenge and escape punishment via their own facelessness, personal dignity being a significant plot element. Porfiry though remains the star of the show. There is something compelling about his simultaneous awareness that Russia is supposed to be a better place and his recognition that he must both survive and keep his own soul as a decent man in a culture doomed by its own corruption. Early in the book, he dances around his own sympathies for the radicals while trying to protect a young bakery employee caught with anarchist pamphlets. Later, he traps flies with trays of honey laced with alcohol. Virginsky asks the magistrate “Why don’t you just poison them?” and Porfiry replies “What would be the fun in that?”

Porfiry thus establishes himself as a classic existential detective, an individual dedicated to the redemption of the individual in a society so rife with corruption and indifference that collapse is inevitable. At some point, the reader realizes that Morris isn’t simply talking about 19th century St. Petersburg, but may instead be pointing forward to dilemmas faced in modern culture that may have more parallels to Porfiry’s world than we care to admit.

I would mention that there is a passing resemblance between Morris's premise and Caleb Carr's The Alienest in that Carr built a series around a 19th century crime solving psychologist in Gilded Age New York City instead of St. Petersburg. Carr tends to focus more on period detail while Morris stays with character and I think in the long run that pays off.

There is a moment with any detective series, when the reader realizes that he or she may well be reading every book in the series. With a Vengeful Longing, that may have happened for me and Porfiry Petrovich. I guess that makes me one of those flies now drawn to R.N. Morris’s honey and left to his mercies as Porfiry’s new keeper.

Fwiw, I should mention that I was drawn to the Gentle Axe and Vengeful Longing because I’ve known Roger Morris via the internet for a couple years. One measure of what a nice fellow he is that we started exchanging e-mails because he read one of my stories and sent me an e-mail about it. It’s rare for a well known/or rising writer to extend such an unbidden kindness to one of far more modest accomplishments. I do hope we meet someday in person and not as part of a police investigation.



At 1/31/2009 07:22:00 AM, Blogger benny06 said...

I'm not familiar with this author, so the book review is quite helpful.

I'm reading PD James' latest, The Private Patient, but I'm not far enough into it to make any comments.

At 1/31/2009 08:32:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I've never read PD James for some reason, though I certainly wouldn't be averse to trying. I have a feeling that RN Morris will be much better known in a couple years.
It's usually a matter of movie options and his stories might do well in movie form.

At 1/31/2009 10:42:00 AM, Blogger benny06 said...

Your hunch about RN Morris and Hollywood is probably right. PD James' stories have been on Mystery, and better suited for Mystery since most of it is produced in the UK.

I recommend the Dalgliesh series highly though, especially if you love reading about Devon (SW part of the UK) and its mores/customs. I'm partly Angophile.

At 2/04/2009 01:01:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks for the suggestions Benny.
So your part Anglophile, part cat, and part Edwardsphile?


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