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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
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on 1 April 2009
St. Petersburg 1866. Part buried in a local park is the snow covered body of a dwarf; nearby in a birch tree hangs another body, large and bearded, possibly the criminal perpetrator. On the first body are found a set of obscene playing cards, on the other the axe of the title.
From the outset the examining magistrate Porfiry Petrovich is suspicious of the murder/suicide theory. This character has been "borrowed" from Dostoevsky's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT one year earlier and THE GENTLE AXE offers echoes of that Russian classic. Also Porfiry is a fan of the work of Gogol, an actor recites from Gogol's THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR and souls seem to be available for barter (cf. Gorky's DEAD SOULS).
It is the exploration of the atmosphere and life of urban Russia in the C19 that most distinguishes this historical crime novel. Morris moves Porfiry easily and confidently through the various levels of society, as he encounters women of the night, actors, street urchins, publishers, impoverished students, policemen, local officials and even a prince .
The result is a novel that draws on old and new generic features. It is a police procedural describing Porfiry's relationship with superiors and with "junior" colleagues, as well as the medical examiner. But it has a high body count and does not flinch from the blood and gore of crime scenes. Morris writes with flair and precision. This highly successful novel augurs well for the series.
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VINE VOICEon 27 June 2015
This is the first in a series of detective novels set in 19th century St Petersburg featuring investigative magistrate Porfiry Petrovich, who is the detective in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment who investigates the murders committed by the student Raskolnikov. This novel also features some of the minor characters from the classic novel, some different but very similar ones such as the student Virginsky, and some of the same features (e.g. axes, pawnbrokers), though I had to check to confirm the names as it is many years since I read it at university. The plot of this spin off is okay, a little convoluted and unclear until all is revealed in the final chapter. The descriptions of the city and its inhabitants are good and evocative, though I can't say I like any of the characters really. Not sure if I will bother with any of the sequels.
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on 22 May 2010
I wasn't at all gripped by this story. While the author did a fine job in transporting the reader to 19th century St Petersburg, a great setting wonderfully described can only go so far. I wanted to be involved in the characters' lives, and I wanted to be turning the pages, eager to know what happened next.

There were just too many characters in the murder case, each on stage for too little time (or not at all), to allow the reader to get to know them. I didn't care whodunnit. Even the main character of Porfidy was rather flat - I didn't care about him either.

As for the plot, it plodded on, with clues appearing occasionally, some other anonymous person (yawn) being murdered... And the scene at the end where everything was explained was unintentionally funny, as if it was a comedy sketch - how many ridiculous motives for (and methods of) murder can you think of?

On the plus side, the writing was good, I thought, although in a few places words were used incorrectly, as if the author had misunderstood their meaning - but maybe this was done deliberately, to give an 'in translation' feel.
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This is a cleverly plotted book but unfortunately I didn't enjoy it. I found the writing opaque and a bit convoluted so I never felt that I got to know any of the characters. I wanted to know how the plot ended but I found myself continually checking how far it was to the end and wondering if I could put up with the prose to get there. I assume that the writing is in the style of Dostoevsky whom I haven't read (and if it is won't be any time soon) so it will suit some readers, just not me.
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on 1 October 2011
It is December 1866, and two bodies have been discovered in St Petersburg's Petrovsky Park. It looks as though a dwarf has been killed with an axe and stuffed in a suitcase, and that his murderer, in a fit of remorse, has hanged himself from a nearby tree. At least that's how it seems to the old woman who finds the bodies (along with 6,000 roubles and a pack of pornographic playing cards), and to just about everyone else.

The investigating magistrate, however, is not so sure. He is no ordinary investigator, his most famous case having been that of the double murder committed by Raskolnikov, the student anti-hero of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. His name is Porfiry Petrovich, and R.N. Morris has brilliantly appropriated him to serve as the central character of A Gentle Axe. Eighteen months on from the Raskolnikov case and still haunted by it, he looks just the same - portly and affable, but with a knack of knocking his interviewees off balance by the frequent blinking of his strikingly fair eyelashes, `blond to the point of transparency'.

Morris's recreation of the seamy side of 19th-century St Petersburg is remarkably vivid and convincing - the forbidding tenements, ominous stairwells and dank courtyards so familiar to Dostoyevsky and his readers, which serve as a backdrop to a cast of idiosyncratic characters. Most of them have secrets to hide, ranging from homosexuality (punishable at the time by exile and hard labour), through blackmail to pederasty. Morris's story-telling technique also owes something to another St Petersburg writer, Nikolai Gogol, particularly in his focus on the 19th-century Russian obsession with rank. Should one even bother to investigate a crime whose victims were of such inferior rank? wonders Yaroslav Nikolaevich Liputin, the prokuror and Porfiry Petrovich's boss, and there are shades of The Nose in the outrage of the 'actual state councillor' at the pathologist absent-mindedly handing him his overcoat during his examinination of the corpses.

Liputin is to Porfiry Petrovich what Vice-Questore Patta is to Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti or Chief Superintendent Strange is to Inspector Morse, the obstreperous boss who, in his desire for a tidy solution, places obstacles in the way of his inferior. As to who did it, Morris keeps the reader guessing until the last chapter. Meanwhile the old lady who found the bodies has spent much of her 6,000 roubles on the acquisition of hundreds of icons to adorn the room she shares with a tender-hearted prostitute (no Dostoyevskian novel would be complete without one). Morris even includes the statutory holy monk on his deathbed, and he has certain great advantages over Dostoyevsky: A Gentle Axe is much shorter than Crime and Punishment and considerably easier to read.

[An edited version of this review first appeared in The Independent in February 2007.]
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on 4 February 2008
This book will grab your attention on the first page and not let you go, even after you are done.
This is first class storytelling from a man who deserves to take his place as one of the best. The characters are well drawn, sympathetic, annoying, pitiable, but realistic. The location is as cold as some of the happenings and you are drawn into an atmospheric past that both invades the present and astonishes you with its authenticity.
Porfiry has been brought back to life so successfully by his new author that it makes you not only forgive Morris for stealing from the best but also applaud him for doing so. Dostoevsky would be proud. A great detective deserves more than one outing and now, through the mastery of R.N. Morris, Porfiry gets that chance.
An experience not to be missed.
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on 4 February 2008
I met Roger Morris only because of the Russo-British current crisis. It is this tension between UK and Russia that prevented my Chekhov project from going ahead due to directors not being able to get UK visas. Instead I did my one-woman Dostoevsky performance based on his first unfinished novel Netochka Nezvanova.

Undoubtedly it was Dostoevsky that attracted Roger to come the New End Theatre on the opening night of my show. I say thank you to Foydor Michailovich for introducing me to this interesting writer.

To do the show me and my co-producer had to travel to Petersburg in December (exactly 121 years after the events described in The Gentle Axe).

I would argue that December is the best time to visit Petersburg, if you want to see the dark side of the city. There is very little light, it is unbearably cold, almost always windy and snowy. All people are so wrapped up, you can hardly see their faces, which makes each walking person a mystery and a potential threat. Some alleys and streets might be under-lit and will always have some Dostoevsky-an characters hovering about. There is always an air of doom and gloom, paradoxically interlinked with a strong sense of spirituality, which you need to maintain if you want to survive in the harsh unlivable conditions of this northern city.

All these essential characteristics of Peter's great city are captured in the Gentle Axe with admirable precision. St.Petersburg in December stands out very strongly like a character in itself. But Morris goes further than a regular visitor's observations and captures less easily detected sides of Petersburg, such as (in my own words) the snowy vastness of open spaces of the city being indifferent to the grand arrogance and energy of the buildings. The book is full of these kind of intelligent observations, which frankly, now became intertwined with my own memories of visiting Petersburg in December, making them richer and more intense.

So the setting for the murder mystery is chosen and described perfectly. The mystery that evolves within is quite something. It is a page-turner, this book. Be warned! The characters are very fascinating to have around you for those 5-7 hours that it will take you to read it. I had no idea who the murderer was and was desperately trying to guess, admittedly unsuccessfully. So the ending was a surprise to me, but a satisfying surprise.

Characters have genes of Dostoevsky in them, but as a third generation they go further. A dwarf philosopher, gay actor and child pornographer are at the top of the crop. But their presence is justified in this debauched twisted society full of dark secrets. You believe in them. You want to hear their stories. But you never quite work out what they are until the very end.

This is a great read. I must admit that I am now compelled to get Roger's other Petersburg mystery and will await his future work with eagerness and interest.
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on 24 November 2012
This does a very good job in capturing the flavour of Crime and Punishment.

It did seem authentically Russian and of its time.

I thought that it was very well written and there were even some amusing moments.
The crime elements are quite well done and there is a genuine mystery to it. There were plenty of interesting characters and I thought that the dialogue was very impressive.

It is slightly grim and depressing at times but thankfully it isn't over the top.
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on 19 May 2007
One of the things they never tell you about becoming a writer, is that you're going to have to deal with the books and stories of other writers. By which I mean, people you know, and like, will get stuff published - and you are going to have to go and read it and then say something about it. It's only polite, after all!

But ... oh, the big but! Suppose you don't like it, or it's badly edited, or you think it's a thinly plagiarised version of another work that wasn't much cop to begin with? You might think that's not very likely - but the more you write, the more writers you meet, and the more you meet, the more likely it is that you're going - one day - to have to front up to a writer whom you love dearly but whose work you detest utterly.

What you do then, I don't know. But I do know that this kind of fear goes through my head whenever I pick up a book or story by a writer I've met.

Today though, is not that day. I know R. N., he's bought me a drink - and let me tell you, it's a huge relief and a great pleasure to tell you that I sat up until after midnight, reading this novel. It's about as ambitious as it gets, given that it lifts the detective from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and puts him in the middle of a mysterious new murder case, but it works, it really works, and I sat up until after midnight to finish the book. So congratulations R N, and if anybody out there is looking for an atmospheric page turner ... look no further.
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