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A Hard Act to follow?
on 13 March 2007
If you are going to steal, steal from the best. And so Morris lifts his detective from no less a novelist than Dostoyevsky, extending the career of Porfiry Petrovich, the investigator from Crime and Punishment (for the less high brow among us, Porfiry also served as the original model for TV's Columbo).
Naturally Crime and Punishment casts a large shadow over Morris's belated sequel, and not just because it takes place after the events in Dostoyevsky's masterpiece. There is an impoverished student reminiscent of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, a resemblance which does not go unnoticed or unremarked by Porfiry. Dour Russian minds are preoccupied by matters of morality, mortality and immortality, or absence thereof, characters living in close proximity are separated by gulfs of class and the intellectual appetites of Imperial Russia allow Orthodox believers to happily publish atheist philosophy
Morris does allow 21st century permissiveness to take him further than even Fyodor would have dared with prostitution and child pornography given more graphic treatment than any Victorian era author would have dared, while the crime Porfiry investigates is more grotesque than the simple bashing of a couple of old women to death with an axe as the body of a murdered dwarf is found packed in a suitcase close to where a burly peasant is hanging from a tree. An obvious case of murder and suicide, Porfiry's bosses decide, and not worth investigating. Porfiry naturally sees more to it than that, but it is only when a minor prince reports the disappearance of an actor friend that he finds another angle from which to pursue his investigation.
Sure, it is never going to join its 140- year old prequel as a cornerstone of world literature, but this is pretty impressive achievement which succeeds on its own terms as a well written literary thriller with loads of chilly Russian atmosphere and even plays fair as a murder mystery.
Porfiry, a cigarette-smoking humane and incisive investigator, will certainly be welcomed back on the bookshelves as a slightly more serious counterpart to Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin. But if we are giving an extended life to detectives who pop up in classic Victorian novels, who come nobody seems to be looking at the daddy of them all, Inspector Bucket from Bleak House? Or is Dickens an even harder act to follow than Dostoyevsky?
credited: Calum Macleod