R. N. Morris’s masterful sequel to his acclaimed first novel The Gentle Axe, A Vengeful Longing again follows Porfiry Petrovich, Dostoevskian hero and chief magistrate of St. Petersburg.
It is the summer of 1868 and in St. Petersburg the oppressive heat, the stench of canals which have become little more than open sewers, and a series of murders have driven Porfiry nearly to his wits’ end. A woman and her son die after eating poisoned chocolates given to them by a disillusioned husband. An incorrigible womanizer is shot to death after being confronted by the enraged father of one of his sexual conquests. A mean-spirited religious hypocrite is found stabbed to death with a poniard after humiliating a grief-stricken man whose daughter had just died. In each case, the identity of the murderer would seem self-evident. The motives are clear and the methods are carefully suited to each victim. But Porfiry is smart enough to know that when things seem too neat, too simple, too obvious, something is very likely amiss. He realizes that someone wants him to reach for the obvious solution, that he is being led to false conclusions by a killer who is one step ahead of him.
R. N. Morris is keenly aware of the historical context of Porfiry’s investigation, and the surface tension of the novel is generated in part of the undercurrents of social and political unrest coursing through Russia in the 1860s. Virginsky, who had been a murder suspect himself in The Gentle Axe and is now training to become an investigating magistrate, rages against the injustices he sees all around him in St. Petersburg. Glittering wealth and grinding poverty are sharply juxtaposed in the city. Porfiry and Virginsky are drawn into some of its darkest corners, a shadowy hell of Dantesque horrors where dozens of people live in miserably cramped rooms, forced to drink water contaminated with human feces in a world where madness, suicide, and murder are the norm—the very same conditions that lead to revolution nearly fifty years later.
The filthy canals whose stench is magnified by the summer heat—and from which the wealthy flee to their country houses during the hottest months—flow symbolically throughout the novel. They contribute to an outbreak of cholera in the poorest districts and drive Porfiry nearly to madness himself. His frustrated attempts to get the appropriate bureaucrats to do anything about the canals reveal the extent to which Russia’s mechanisms of governance had themselves become stagnant.
Nevertheless, Porfiry brings his remarkable mixture of tenacity, experience, intuition, and acute psychological understanding to the cases before him. But the process of unraveling these murders is arduous, entailing many false leads and painstaking work to rule out the obvious suspects in order to find the real killer before he strikes again.
Part of what makes A Vengeful Longing so appealing, even to seasoned mystery readers, is the fact that it is not only a superbly written novel but a fascinating commentary on detective work as well. Because Porfiry is training Virginsky he is continually reflecting on the nature of the investigative process, debating tactics and ethics with his less experienced and more idealistic partner, a man whom Porfiry chides for being morbidly obsessed with fairness. Their dialogue about investigative work offers readers another layer of pleasure, added to a social, historical, and psychological acumen that Dostoevsky himself would have admired.
R. N. Morris was born in Manchester, England, in 1960 and now lives in North London with his wife and two 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’s South Bank. Another, “Revenants,” was published as a comic book. A Vengeful Longing is the follow-up to his first novel, The Gentle Axe, published in 2006.
Yes, very much so. Notes from the Underground is a remarkable book. I think quite a strange one for a modern reader to get their head around, perhaps, because it does come so much out of the time it was written. It is in a sense a response to another novel, What Is to Be Done? by Chernyshevsky, which apparently was Lenin’s favorite novel and had a huge influence at the time, although it is almost unknown now among Westerners. Chernyshevsky’s characters are all examples of New Men and Women, who always behave in an absolutely rational way. They also strike modern readers as wholly artificial constructs and it’s hard to understand just how massively influential the book was and why Dostoevsky felt the need to answer it. The impeccable rationalism of the characters means although they must act selfishly—it’s only rational to do what is in their own best interests—they realize, because they are superior and sophisticated beings, that what is best for society is also best for them. So their selfish acts turn out to be acts of altruism, and they go about organizing society in a more just way. The protorevolutionary movement provides the background for the novel. Porfiry refers to What Is to Be Done? ironically in my novel, slightly teasing Virginsky, who seems to subscribe to this way of thinking. Anyhow, Dostoevksy reacted strongly against this really quite artificial view of humanity. He knew that human beings were far from being wholly rational creatures—and even if they knew what was best for them, and for society, they would not be bound to act in accordance with it. Quite the opposite. Vice, depravity, crime, addiction, alcoholism, all kinds of shameful behavior—people will choose to engage in all of these as a way of asserting their freedom, even though such behaviors are far from rational.
Q. What prompted you to lift Porfiry Petrovich out of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and use him for your own fictional purposes? Did you feel a risk in borrowing a character from such a major writer?
I blame Penguin Classics! The first time I read Crime and Punishment, it was an old Penguin edition and the blurb described it as one of the first detective novels, but it’s not really a detective novel at all. The blurb did its job in enticing me to read it, because at that time, as a teenager, I was more likely to read Conan Doyle than Dostoevsky—but it was a bit misleading, I have to say. Anyhow that description stuck in my mind over the years, as I reread it a number of times, and I came to thinking that actually there was an idea for a novel—for a detective story with Porfiry Petrovich taking the central role. As for the risk, well, yes, of course. It didn’t get in my way when I was writing the book, but once the book was written and I had a publisher prepared to take it on—that was when the fear set in! I was terrified of what the reaction would be from purists.
Q. We don’t know much about Porfiry’s personal life, except that he’s not married. Why did you choose to make him a bachelor?
There are intriguing clues in Crime and Punishment—about Porfiry claiming that he was getting married, that he had even bought a wedding suit, but it all turned out to be a hoax of some kind. There was no wedding and no bride. I found this incredibly intriguing and suggestive. It seemed to be a central motif for me—something that lies at the heart of Porfiry’s mystique. There is also this idea, quite common in detective fiction, of the detective married to the job, who is over the years so engrossed in his career that the other aspects of life somehow seem to pass him by.
Q. Why are you so drawn to nineteenth-century St. Petersburg as a setting for your novels?
It is a fascinating period, a period of great intellectual, political and social ferment. There were tremendous pressures at work—radical ideas that found no legitimate outlet. Political activity as we understand it was virtually illegal. Dostoevsky himself was sentenced to death, though the sentence was commuted to exile at the last minute, essentially for taking part in a debating society. It’s true that under Alexander II, there was a certain liberalization. He introduced a number of wide-ranging reforms, including the liberation of the serfs and a general relaxation of censorship. This led to a great intellectual and creative, especially literary, flowering. But official censorship was a fact of life. And, as a writer, I find that quite interesting. I think it’s true to say that the seeds of the coming revolution are being planted in this period.
Q. One of the characters in the novel was bullied and tormented during his school years and this has some bearing on the “vengeful longing” that gives the book its title. Incidences of bullying seem to be on the rise in the United States and often lead to serious acts of violence. Is that also true in the United Kingdom?
I’m not sure whether bullying is on the rise over here or not. I imagine it is an ever-present problem. I was bullied as a child in junior school and I think it has had a profound effect on me. There was a time when, although not friendless, I did feel extremely isolated and unhappy. The particular boy who was bullying me was obviously a very dominant character, a gang leader, who had a big following in the class. His family moved away and he left the school. I remember the first day he was not there, all the kids who had been in his gang and who had been making my life a misery for God knows how long, came over and sat with me at dinnertime and all said that they had never liked him and were glad he had gone. Even the boy whom I saw as his nastiest henchman was now smiling and being friendly to me. I subsequently heard that the boy who had been my bully had had an accident at his new school and had fallen off some gym equipment and broken his neck and been paralyzed. This brought forth terrible feelings of guilt in me as I had wished him dead many times. That’s not an answer to your question—sorry! The phenomenon of the high school massacre—if that’s what you’re alluding to—does seem to be getting closer to the U.K. There was one in Finland and another two in Germany recently, though I don’t know enough about those cases to say whether they had anything to do with bullying. There does seem to be a sense that the final violence comes from an outsider taking revenge for perceived wrongs. The big problem in the U.K. is related to youth knife crime and is slightly different because that’s mostly about gangs and street violence.
Q. How do you plot out your novels? Have you already solved the mystery before you begin writing, or do you start off, like Porfiry, without a map or a clear destination?
I do have it all fairly tightly plotted out. I come at the plot in a number of ways, using colored index cards for different story strands and character groups. I also use colored pens on tracing paper—that gives me a sense of the layers of the story. I also map out a kind of verbal story board—a grid of boxes with a brief description of an action sequence in it. And then I write a fairly detailed chapter by chapter synopsis, in which usually the ending is fairly completely written, at least in dialogue. If that all makes me sound mad, then so be it.
Q. Why did you make Porfiry’s irritation over the sanitary conditions in St. Petersburg such an important part of A Vengeful Longing?
I came to see it as a metaphor for everything that was wrong with the czarist state, and how the faults in the system might lead to a rise in criminality. Just as the stinking ditch—an open sewer—breeds the flies that plague Porfiry. But “metaphor” is such an abstract word. Metaphors can be pungent and tangible and concrete—indeed, that is how they carry their meaning, in a very precise, real way. I sometimes think individuals are politicized by the smallest of things, by details in their lives, by things that go wrong for them. Not by abstract ideas, but by concrete grievances. And that the continual failure to sort out an intolerable problem might be the sort of thing that would push even a reasonable man like Porfiry over the edge.
Q. Porfiry asserts that it is perhaps the murderer’s desire to impose order that compels him to murder. It seems that much of the novel explores this tension between randomness and order, or meaningless and meaning. Is this a philosophical issue that you wished to dramatize in the novel?
I suppose the whole way that detective fiction works is to impose order on chaos. Normally it is the “good order” that comes when the crime is solved and the perpetrator brought to justice, rather than the “bad order” of an overcontrolling murderer running rampant. I think part of what fuelled this aspect of the book was a contemplation of the specific conditions of the time, in particular the political system: an autocracy—one ruler trying to hold together and control this vast empire. Obviously an impossible task. I was fascinated by the idea of the czarist bureaucracy—that forms a backdrop for the story. The bureaucracy is the machinery of control. I wanted to explore how those controlling instincts might go awry. I’m not sure I was thinking philosophically—more feeling my way.
Q. Who are your favorite mystery writers?
As I mentioned before, I grew up reading Conan Doyle, though it is some time since I’ve read him. There’s no doubt that the figure of Sherlock Holmes, whether received through the original stories, or through film and TV adaptations, has been a huge influence on me. I was also very influenced by Simenon, and when I decided I was going to try my hand at writing crime, I naturally turned to Simenon for some lessons. But there are really too many writers to mention. My mind always goes blank when I am asked this question.
Q. Will there be another appearance of Porfiry in the future?
I have just finished writing my third Porfiry Petrovich novel, A Razor Wrapped in Silk. Actually, I am just putting the final touches to the edit for my U.K. publisher. So yes! If A Vengeful Longing drew upon Notes from the Underground, then I suppose A Razor Wrapped in Silk is inspired by The Idiot. To return to one of your earlier questions, there’s more of Porfiry’s personal life in the new one too, as he looks back to his relationship with his own father. My original plan was to write four Porfiry novels, one for each season. So far I have done winter, summer, and autumn.