R. N. Morris

Porfiry Petrovich - Investigating Magistrate, St. Petersburg, 19th Century Russia

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"A Vengeful Longing"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky JUL 7, 2008)

"These are not abstract puzzles to be unpicked, nor exercises in logic. We are dealing with people's lives. Crimes are the eruptions of human passions, of greed, desire, jealously. Despair. These are the criminal causes we investigate. An investigator needs to be watchful. But most of all he needs to be capable of looking into his own heart. Do not rely on your intellect, Pavel Pavlovich. Rely on your humanity."

A Vengeful Longing by R.N. Morris

It is June, 1868, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky, who had been an impoverished and emaciated student living on the edge in R. N. Morris's debut novel, The Gentle Axe, has put on weight and dresses respectably now. He is a university graduate with a degree in law who has decided to follow in the footsteps of Porfiry Petrovich, "one of the best investigating magistrates in St. Petersburg." Petrovich, who works in the Department of the Investigation of Criminal Causes, has agreed to take the young man on as his assistant. Little does Virginsky know that he and his mentor are about to embark on a bizarre homicide investigation during which they will witness appalling scenes of carnage and peer into the darkest recesses of the human psyche.

First, a mother and her young son are poisoned after eating chocolates laced with a deadly substance; next, a former army colonel is gunned down in his apartment; finally, a drunken man is stabbed through the heart and left in the street to die. On the surface, these victims appear to have nothing in common, and in each case there is a convenient suspect. However, Porfiry is not convinced that the obvious answer is correct. He studies the background of the victims and uses his considerable understanding of the workings of the criminal mind to get to the bottom of this perplexing enigma.

A Vengeful Longing is an absorbing mystery that is enlivened by deliciously dark humor, spirited dialogue, and intriguing glimpses into the Russian class system during the late nineteenth century. The well-drawn cast includes Dr. Martin Meyer, a doctor with a degree in toxicology who is suspected of administering a deadly substance to his wife and child; Gorshkov, a former factory worker whose mind became unbalanced after the deaths of his daughters; and Lieutenant Salytov, a bigoted and quick-tempered policeman who resents Porfiry and constantly tries the magistrate's patience. Although he presents an unruffled demeanor to his colleagues, Porfiry has a compulsive streak evidenced by his chain smoking; he is rarely without a cigarette in his mouth. Nor is he an infallible detective who quickly deduces the answer to every question. Rather, his strength lies in his tenacity and his ability to think logically and imaginatively. With Virginsky, Porfiry shows a softer side, taking the time to instruct his apprentice in the finer points of criminal detection and encouraging the young man to express his ideas without fear of ridicule.

R. N. Morris beautifully captures the atmosphere of St. Petersburg, contrasting the fetid tenements where the starving poor live in degrading conditions with the well-appointed and spacious homes of the upper classes. The author also takes us inside the walls of an insane asylum, where the mentally ill are subject to relentless abuse. Revolution is in the air. The have-nots are becoming fed up with their miserable living conditions as well as with the fossilized bureaucrats who ignore their needs. This book, however, is more than a diatribe about the inequities of Russian society under the tsar. The author has a more subtle point to make, namely that everyone is capable of committing unspeakable acts under certain circumstances. It is the unenviable task of officials like Porfiry Petrovich to look beneath the façade that people present to the world and untangle the lies that are an inevitable part of any criminal inquiry. "Everything has meaning," says Porfiry. "One must grope for the signposts in the mist." In spite of its occasionally melodramatic plot, A Vengeful Longing is an entertaining and suspenseful novel that will please fans of literate historical fiction.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 3 reviews
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"The Gentle Axe"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky JUL 7, 2008)

"I do not believe these mysteries are solved rationally, through the exercise of a cold, deductive reasoning…. The thing that terrifies me—sometimes, when I allow myself to think about it--is that I don't know how they are solved. One must go to a place within one's self. It's a kind of a Siberia of the soul. In the criminal, it is the place where these deeds are conceived and carried through. But we all have a similar place within us. Or so I believe."

The Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris

R. N. Morris's The Gentle Axe is set in St. Petersburg, Russia, in December 1866. Approximately a year and a half earlier, Porfiry Petrovich relentlessly interrogated a student named Raskolnikov until the suspect broke down and confessed. The Gentle Axe opens in Petrovsky Park, where an aging former prostitute named Zoya Nikolaevna Petrova braves the biting cold in order to collect a basket of firewood. She keeps trudging along in spite of her aches and pains because of her fierce devotion to a young prostitute named Lilya and Lilya's adorable daughter, Vera, who live with her. Suddenly, Zoya stumbles upon a horrific scene--the body of a "big brute" hangs from a birch trunk and the corpse of a dwarf lies folded in a suitcase. She searches the two victims for money and anything that she can sell, and then quickly darts away without alerting the police.

Next, we meet the chain-smoking and cerebral Porfiry Petrovich, a magistrate in the Department of the Investigation of Criminal Causes. After he receives an anonymous tip stating that there has been a murder in Petrovsky Park, he convinces the police to conduct a search. They soon discover the bodies that Zoya had encountered earlier. Porfiry's shortsighted and inept colleagues want to declare this an open and shut case of murder/suicide, but Porfiry's keen eye, sharp senses, and well-honed instincts tell him that there is nothing straightforward or obvious about the deaths of a dwarf named Stepan Sergeyevich Goryanchikov and a yardkeeper named Borya.

Morris ably describes the social and economic conditions in St. Petersburg during the late nineteenth century. A strict caste system buffered the upper classes from the indigent wretches who barely had enough food to sustain life or enough fuel to ward off the frigid winds. R. N. Morris has created a lively and colorful cast of characters whose connection to one another unfolds little by little: Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky, an emaciated student who is too proud to ask his estranged father for the financial support that he so desperately needs; Lilya Ivanovna Semenova, a young woman who must sell herself to feed her family; Anna Alexandrovna, a wealthy widow who was closely acquainted with both Borya and Goryanchikov; Osip Maximovich Simonov, an arrogant man who runs a publishing house and may be hiding vital information from Porfiry; Ilya Petrovich Salytov, a short-tempered police lieutenant who resents Porfiry and tries to thwart him at every turn; and two actors, Ratazyayev and Govorov, who both play pivotal roles in what turns out to be a thorny and multilayered mystery.

Morris imbues his strange and complex tale with a healthy dose of black humor, and he skillfully explores the hypocrisy of those who hide their malicious nature behind a veneer of respectability. In addition, the author demonstrates an appreciation for the unique mix of spirituality and materialism in the Russian psyche. Porfiry is a fascinating sleuth: a skilled psychologist, observant criminalist, tenacious pursuer, and ultimately, the voice of conscience and reason at a time when justice was elusive. His nemesis is a perverted individual who has concocted a senseless rationale for committing a series of monstrous deeds. Although the novel is marred by a tendency to talkiness and a somewhat contrived ending, The Gentle Axe is worth reading for its indelible portrayal of Porfiry Petrovich and the dismal landscape that he inhabits--a true "Siberia of the soul."

  • Amazon readers rating: 4 Starsfrom 14 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Writing as Roger Morris:


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About the Author:

R. N. MorrisR. (Roger) N. Morris was born in Manchester, England, in 1960. He sold his first short story to a teenage girls’ magazine while still a student at Cambridge University, where he read classics. He went on to make his living as a freelance copywriter, composing text for British Airways, Penguin Books, The Guardian, and even Lexus automobiles. Yet he continued to pen fiction as well, although it was only occasionally published. One of his stories, “The Devil’s Drum,” was turned into a one-act opera, which was performed at the Purcell Room in London’s South Bank. Another, “Revenants,” was published as a comic book.

He resides in North London with his wife and two young children.

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