When aging prostitute Zoya stumbles upon a bizarre and grisly crime scene—a burly peasant hanging from a tree, a bloody axe in his belt, and a dwarf with an axe-wound in his head stuffed inside a suitcase—she is frightened by the brutality of the scene before her. But when Zoya uncovers 6,000 rubles in the hanged man’s pocket, her horror turns to exaltation. After all the years of strange men removing her clothing, the shoe is suddenly on the other foot. She picks through the clothing of the hanged man and finds her salvation. Assuming the hanged man murdered the dwarf and then killed himself out of shame, there seems little reason for her to concern herself with guilt. These two certainly aren’t going to find use for the money and she has a young child to feed.
When the police discover the crime scene, they are also more than eager to accept this simple explanation as well. But Porfiry Petrovich, the world-weary, shrewdly observant investigator, still exhausted from solving the case of the demented student Raskolnikov, is acutely aware that things are not always what they seem, especially when they seem too clear. Porfiry orders an autopsy and, after finding prussic acid in the hanged man’s blood, begins an investigation of the killings that will lead him from the elegant homes and clubs of St. Petersburg’s genteel society to its brothels and pawnbrokers and filthy rooming houses.
Indeed, the issue of class—especially the presumed moral superiority of the upper echelons—figures prominently in The Gentle Axe. When we first meet Porfiry Petrovich, he is reading an article called “Why Do They Do It?,” an examination of “the motivation of educated, titled, and talented perpetrators of crime and injustice.” Unlike nearly everyone else in the novel, Porfiry is not content to accept the stereotypes of class and gender. When he suspects the aristocratic Anna Alexandrovna, the prokuror Liputin asks: “Is that really likely? A woman? And a woman of her class too? Would she not be restrained by modesty and a sense of shame?” Porfiry is not willing to attribute people’s behavior to what one might expect of members of their class or gender. Instead, he is feels compelled to learn the truth, wherever it might take him and however much it does not fit with prevailing social conventions.
Porfiry’s search also takes him into the high and low ends of the publishing world, where one publishing house translates the great works of Hegel and other major philosophers while another produces pornographic pamphlets. Here, too, Porfiry finds that the line that separates good and evil, moral and vulgar, innocence and crime is deceptively—and dangerously—blurry. Atmospheric, historically compelling, and beautifully written, The Gentle Axe offers all the pleasures of a mystery—suspense, intrigue, narrative tension, danger, surprise, and discovery. But it is also a fascinating investigation into the divergence of reality and appearance, between societal conventions and the more complicated truth they so often conceal.
Born in Manchester in 1960, R. N. Morris now lives in North London with his wife and two young children. He sold his first short story to a teenage girls’ magazine while still a student at Cambridge University, where he read classics. Making his living as a freelance copywriter, he has continued to write, and occasionally publish, fiction. One of his stories, “The Devil’s Drum,” was turned into a one-act opera, which was performed at the Purcell Room in London.
Q. How would you describe the relationship between your novel and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment?
A. Obviously, The Gentle Axe couldn’t exist if there had never been a Crime and Punishment, so my debt to Dostoevsky is enormous. Not just for Crime and Punishment; I have been inspired by themes, characters, and scenes from other Dostoevsky novels too—in particular, The Brothers Karamazov. The image I have is of painters. Dostoevsky is, of course, the master. I imagine myself walking into his studio. I find his palette with his characteristic colors laid out on it and a blank canvas ready on an easel. Naturally, I’m unable to resist the temptation to begin my own painting. I like to think that if Dostoevsky walked back into the studio he would look indulgently, perhaps even approvingly, on what I have attempted. He is, after all, a very humane writer. At the same time, I should say that my book is very different from Crime and Punishment. I don’t necessarily believe that you need to have read Crime and Punishment to enjoy The Gentle Axe. It’s my hope, though, that people who haven’t yet read Dostoevsky will be encouraged to do so after reading my book. That’s perhaps one small way I can pay off my debt.
Q. What attracted you to the character of Porfiry Petrovich?
A. His eyes! To be a bit more serious, I was drawn to the idea of this early detective who uses psychological methods to get the suspect (Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment) to crack. And the eyes are part of it. This is something I picked up and took from Dostoevsky, I feel. The sense Raskolnikov has of Porfiry watching him closely (he “did not once take his eyes from the guest”) was something that made a big impression on me. The watchfulness—and observational skills—of Porfiry is key to his role as a detective. In Crime and Punishment, we see Porfiry through Raskolnikov’s eyes and there is this sense of Porfiry as a Mephistophelean character. He’s Raskolnikov’s nemesis. Raskolnikov is certainly afraid of him, justifiably. Canny and cunning, but almost with the cunning of an old peasant woman. His femininity is stressed a number of times—those eyes again. He plays tricks, he’s a prankster—there are a couple of hints along these lines in Crime and Punishment that I found particularly intriguing and suggestive. Apparently, he once pretended to be getting married and even purchased a wedding suit. At another time he claimed to be about to enter a monastery. There turned out to be nothing in either story. In my novel, this comes out in his psychological manipulations, which at times may seem quite cruel. No one, not even his colleagues, quite trusts him. The games he plays, though, are all in the service of a higher end: to discover and thereby bring about the salvation of the perpetrator.
Q. What are some of the differences between writing historical fiction and fiction set in the present? Do you have a preference for one over the other?
A. At the risk of stating the obvious, with historical fiction you are trying to imagine what it must have been like to live in the past; with contemporary fiction you are trying to understand what it means to live now. They both present unique challenges. I think writing any fiction, for me at least, is an exercise in imaginative empathy. I am trying, always, to put myself in someone else’s shoes, to look out from another’s eyes. In all historical fiction, inevitably, the past that is presented is one shaped by the preoccupations of the age in which the writer lives. You can’t escape that, and in fact I don’t think you should try. That’s what makes historical fiction interesting, the fact that it is a reinterpretation of the past. Actually, the more I think about it, the more they come down to the same thing. It’s about exploring, in one way or another, the infinite variety of experiences that constitute being human. We understand the present through the past, and the past by juxtaposition with the present. As to which I prefer, I like to do both. For instance, under the name Roger Morris, I’ve written a contemporary urban novel calledTaking Comfort. I realize now that it was also heavily influenced by Crime and Punishment in that it explores themes of transgression and obsessive behavior. It’s very different from The Gentle Axe. I think it would be nice, in the future, to have the freedom to write both historical and contemporary fiction—both ultimately are a means of trying to understand how we came to be where we are.
Q. What research was necessary to prepare for The Gentle Axe? Did you uncover anything surprising about this period in Russia’s history?
A. Naturally, I read Dostoevsky and other Russian novelists of the period. I also read general history books, social history books, and specific books on particular aspects of the period. I also bought a download of a doctoral thesis about the Russian legal system of the period that was very useful. I know a lot of historical novelists like to list every single book they consulted, as if to prove their credentials. I haven’t done that, but, you know, I did read the books! Basically, there’s the background research that you do to give yourself a feel for the period and milieu. Then there’s the specific research that happens when you’re chasing down a particular detail, like trying to get a feel for the interior of a house of the period. I look at photographs a lot. I think photographs from the period can be immensely useful—but also inspiring. I stare into the faces and will them to talk to me. As for discovering anything surprising, as a novelist the things that I find surprising or delightful are the little glimpses of how people lived. For example, I remember reading in Suzanne Massie’s Land of the Firebird about how market gardeners in St. Petersburg protected tender young shoots from frost in the spring. They constructed miniature greenhouses out of a few old windows, and would actually sleep next to their plants on spring nights. They’d wrap themselves up in their sheepskins, but with one bare foot exposed. If frost came in the night, the foot would wake them up. As Massie says, “The result of all this careful attention was that Russians always brought the first asparagus and beans to market, to the extreme annoyance of competing German gardeners.” I didn’t use that detail in the book—it’s set at the wrong time of the year. But I’m saving it up for a future book.
Q. Much is made in the novel of legal reform and the disgruntlement with the new law courts. What changes were taking place at this time in Russia’s legal system? How did these changes affect the culture of Russia during this period?
A. Under Tsar Alexander II, the so-called reforming tsar, the Russian legal system was essentially simplified and made less corrupt. Hearings were made public and, most notably, trial by jury was introduced. Underlying it all was this radical, and for many people quite outrageous, principle that everyone was equal before the law. Before that, a person’s rank had been a factor in the validity of their testimony, so that a gentleman’s word was worth more than a peasant’s, and a prince’s testimony could outweigh, for example, that of a professional witness, such as a medical examiner—or even a policeman. This new principle necessitated a new profession—that of legal representation and the bar in Russia dates from this period. There were some obscure relics of the old system, but the impact of these legal forms was felt immediately and dramatically. There was a general feeling, expressed in the conservative papers of the day, the equivalent to our right-wing tabloids, that criminals were getting off scot-free, that a clever advocate could run rings around the new juries, who were felt to be, in general, too gullible. And indeed, there are reports of some quite surprisingly liberal verdicts. A degree of freedom of speech not found anywhere else seemed to be allowed in the law courts and hence the new class of professional lawyers—of whom Porfiry Petrovich is one—became a focus for political challenge. Of course, old habits die hard: I believe it’s true to say that the tsar and his ministers still considered themselves above the law when it suited them.
Q. How widespread were the problems of prostitution and child pornography in nineteenth-century Russia? Have these issues gotten better or worse as the country moved through the twentieth century and beyond?
A. Bearing in mind that I’m a novelist and not a social historian, I would say that the contemporary perception was that prostitution was a widespread malaise. It was often described in terms of a disease affecting the social organism. And of course, it was linked to syphilis, so there was a real public health, as well as a moral, concern here. It was certainly an issue that was dealt with in the literature of the time, not least in Crime and Punishment, with the character of Sonya. The story of how she was forced into prostitution by her father’s alcoholism and her stepmother’s illness is very powerful and moving and shows Dostoevsky’s unwillingness to judge along any easy moralistic lines. There’s no question of Sonya being depraved. Her choice to carry the “yellow ticket” of the licensed prostitute is an act of noble self-sacrifice. Child prostitution is also a subject touched upon by Dostoevsky in his novel The Insulted and Injured, the story of the attempted sexual exploitation of a little orphan girl called Nellie. According to the historian Laura Engelstein, author of The Keys to Happiness, there’s evidence that young girls had long offered commercial sex in St. Petersburg, with a mid-nineteenth century commission reporting girls as young as nine on the street. Engelstein describes a process that sounds remarkably similar to the human trafficking that we hear about taking place in contemporary Russia, wherein “ill-paid and ill-treated girls easily fell pray to crafty agents who entrapped them with promises of jobs and luxuries.” So perhaps there is a continuum. I think if we have evidence of child prostitution, we can imagine that child pornography existed too—it’s essentially the same thing. Whether it’s better or worse, I find it impossible to say. It’s just depressing that it still goes on.
Q. Osip Maximovich claims that he has reconciled faith and knowledge by reading Hegel. There are other extreme contradictions in his personality as well. What is it about this type of dichotomist character that appeals to you as a writer?
A. Dichotomist character is a good term, I might nab that. Osip Maximovich is intended to be very much a character of his period and milieu. If you like, imperial Russia presented a civilized veneer, and yet it was founded on a fundamental brutality. The nobles of the period, the gentlemen, owed their status and wealth to a form of human bondage. Admittedly, at the time the novel’s set, serfdom had recently been abolished, but it was still the historical basis of the society. I’m interested in the tension that arises from the collision between the effort needed to maintain an outward form and the inner, unruly forces that threaten to destroy it. The denial of illicit sexual desire, for example, is one way of attempting to maintain that façade. But just because you deny something doesn’t mean you are controlling it.
Q. Why did you decide to end the novel in the manner that you did—on New Year’s Eve with Porfiry remembering that he would be expected at Nikodim Fomich’s house?
A. I have this idea that when you are engrossed in some intense activity, for example, writing a novel, or—as I imagine—investigating a crime, you step outside the normal parameters of time. You forget what day it is. You might even forget what season it is. All you can think about is the task that’s absorbing you. When that task is over, there’s a sudden realization that the rest of the world has been going about its business as normal, a kind of returning to normality. The fact that it is New Year’s Eve signifies a new beginning. It is also the date on which Russians celebrate Christmas, so that hope of renewal is important too. My Porfiry is a believer, so this may also represent a resurgence of his faith after its supreme test.
Q. Throughout the novel there is a tension between Porfiry’s need to know the truth and his colleagues’ eagerness to accept the easiest explanation, even if it is wrong. This type of character (one man’s ideals against those of the majority) is common in not only books, but film and television. Why do you think characters like Porfiry, or to be more pop- culture-specific, Mike Hammer and Dirty Harry, are so appealing to writers? What statement does the use of this type of character allow you to make about our world today?
A. When I was writing the book, I felt that I wanted to be respectful of some of the conventions of the genre. What I think is interesting about storytelling is how the teller uses certain stock elements, formulae, as building blocks of the story. It goes back to Homer, and probably before. I felt that this strand was a classic ingredient of this kind of story. It’s part of the idea of the investigator being an outsider, as I mentioned above. There is, I think, a maverick or even transgressive element to Porfiry Petrovich, which he shares with many other detectives. He’s prepared to break the rules, to engage in behavior that borders on insubordinate. But bear in mind that he is a law-enforcer working within an unjust political system. So if he went along with what his superiors and everyone else was saying, then I don’t think he would be at all an interesting character, and in fact to the modern reader would be very unsympathetic. One thing that draws me to writing historical fiction is the possibility of exploring periods of intellectual and moral ferment, when the human consciousness seems to be undergoing some kind of upheaval. This is played out in the moral lives of individuals. And the individuals who are prepared to take a stand, to go against the prevailing viewpoint, are crucial to progress. As for Porfiry, he is not a slave to authority, but a servant of truth.
Q. Do you plan to write other novels featuring Porfiry Petrovich? What are you working on now?
A. So far, I’ve written one other novel featuring Porfiry, which is not yet published. I have plans for other Porfiry Petrovich books, too.