Depending on how readers take to literary conceits, Coetzee's new novel will be received as either a flash of fierce lightning or a rumble of unthreatening thunder. Coetzee (Age of Iron, 1990, etc.) nimbly plucks his premise from a fact -- usually treated as incidental -- of Fyodor Dostoevsky's life. The Russian novelist had a wastrel stepson, Pavel Alexandrovich Isaev, whom Coetzee imagines died in 1869 (he didn't). Suffering an affliction beyond grief, Fyodor travels to St. Petersburg and takes the room his son last occupied. It's in the home of the dour Anna Sergeyevna Kolenkina, the mother of quick-tongued Matryona. His intention is to reconcile himself to his loss by getting to the bottom of it. What he doesn't count on is learning that what he'd been told was a suicide may have been a murder. Among Pavel's papers, which are in the hands of officials, is a list of people to be assassinated. Pavel was possibly marked for death as part of People's Vengeance, a revolutionary group headed by the opportunistic Sergei Gennadevich Nechaev. As various Dostoevskian themes wink from the lines (the ruthlessness of oppressors, father-son rivalry, the nature of death, madness), the disoriented Fyodor finds himself enamored of Anna as well as caught in Sergei's subversive activities. Eventually, Fyodor is entangled in additional deaths -- one on each side of the law -- and as the novel reaches its denouement, he suffers a major disillusionment. Handed his stepson's papers, he learns that he loomed as a heavy in the boy's life. He also discovers that Pavel had scribbled crude short stories that could be remade into works of Dostoevskian art. What Coetzee is getting at is not news: Writers mine material from the complexities of their lives and, if necessary, step on toes, "sell everyone," endure "a life without honor." Boldly presumptuous, yet somehow precious.