The audacity of the premise—a sequel of sorts to Crime and Punishment—sets the bar for this debut novel way too high.
British writer Morris demonstrates well that he’s no Dostoevsky in this otherwise routine detective novel featuring the return of Porfiry Petrovich, still renowned for solving the case of Raskolnikov a year and a half earlier. Here, an old prostitute who serves as a mother figure to a younger one stumbles upon a horrible sight in the middle of Petrovsky Park. She sees two corpses: a very large man hanging from a tree and a very small man who has been bludgeoned to death, apparently by the larger one. The horror turns out to be a windfall for the elderly woman, who discovers a fortune in rubles in the pocket of the hanged man. For police and prosecutors, the deaths appear to be a simple matter of murder and suicide, particularly once it is learned that the two men had argued vehemently the day before their bodies were found. Yet Petrovich, sensing otherwise, orders an autopsy that confirms his suspicion that the obvious explanation is a little too pat. (The doctor performing the autopsy is one of the many minor characters who seem more like caricatures; one of Morris’s previous publications was a comic book.) The complications of the plot soon come to envelop both the older and the younger prostitute, a photographer of the risqué, a Russian prince, a vanished actor, a young student (compared by the characters to Raskolnikov), a publishing house that specializes in both translations of philosophy and erotica aimed at pedophiles and the entire household where both the very large man and the dwarf had lived. Petrovich ultimately solves the case through a literal process of elimination, as one major suspect after another dies in suspicious fashion. Morris’s Petrovich is more like Sherlock Holmes with a psychological bent, and his novel is closer to genre pulp than to the classics.
Russian Lit Lite.