The Gentle Axe, British author R.N. “Roger” Morris’ first thriller starring Porfiry Petrovich, the often eccentric but determined investigating magistrate borrowed from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment, was published in 2007. It has since been followed by three sequels: A Vengeful Longing (2008), A Razor Wrapped in Silk (2010) and now The Cleansing Flames, his latest—and possibly last—entry in that series.
Read the last Rap Sheet at Kirkus about The Kill by Douglas Heyes.
The Cleansing Flames (set for UK release this month, but so far without a U.S. publisher) takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1872. It finds Porfiry and his junior associate, Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky, probing the unexpected reappearance of a corpse deliberately sunk deep into the city’s Winter Canal. That case soon opens up a larger inquiry into efforts by radical intellectuals to foment revolution in Russia, compels Porfiry to butt heads with the tsar’s arrogant secret police and places Virginsky’s life at risk as he seeks to infiltrate a terrorist cell.
What did you see in the Porfiry Petrovich of Crime and Punishment that made you want to promote him as your own fictional protagonist?
In my ignorance, when I first read Crime and Punishment as a callow youth, I think I expected it to be a detective novel, and so I expected Porfiry to be the star. Of course, it isn’t a detective novel, it’s a murderer novel. So I suppose my idea, originally, was to write the novel I’d been expecting to read all those years ago.
Going back to the Porfiry of Crime and Punishment, he only appears in person for a couple of chapters, but his presence looms large over the book. [Rodion Romanovich] Raskolnikov, the murderer, becomes obsessed by the idea of him. Everything in that book is seen through the prism of Raskolnikov. So it was interesting to try to extract a character from that distorted psychological perspective and try to bring it to independent life.
What struck me also is that Porfiry is described a couple of times as a prankster. That, I thought, was fascinating. In the kind of psychological games he plays, the manipulation, the trickery—he’s set the template for a certain kind of fictional detective, including Columbo, apparently. He’s a kind of archetype, so I was very drawn to the idea of trying to re-imagine the original.
Do you feel hampered as the caretaker of a Dostoevsky character? Must you represent Porfiry Petrovich just as the Russian author might have done?
To begin with, I felt a terrible weight of responsibility, and I worried a lot about Dostoevsky-purists ripping me to shreds, in the first place just for the temerity of my enterprise, and second, for getting it wrong. I’m more relaxed now. I can’t really proceed in a pseudo-academic way, trying to construct a Porfiry that is a precise extension of Dostoevsky’s creation, drawing on the clues in his portrayal to create a fuller character. Some other writer might have been able to do it like that, but the only way I could do it was to just allow Porfiry to come to life in my own imagination.
The backdrop of The Cleansing Flames is the rise of revolutionary thinking in Russia during the late 19th century. Can the roots of that country’s 1917 revolution be traced back to political developments featured in your novel?
There were people agitating for revolution at the time of the novel, violent anarchists and radical extremists. And when there are inequalities and injustices in society and they are not addressed, they don’t go away. Certain things can be repressed and held in check—you can put a lid on things, but eventually the lid will blow.
The tsar at the time of the book, Alexander II, was seen as a reformer. He brought in a series of wide-ranging reforms including the liberation of Russia’s serfs. But the reforms were fudged, and he didn’t go far enough for many and so he became a target for terrorists and was of course eventually assassinated, after several unsuccessful attempts.
Just before his death, he’d signed the bill to give Russia a far more democratic constitution, but one of the first acts of his son when he became tsar was to suppress it. Apparently, he wrote a note saying, “Thank God, this criminal and precipitous step towards a constitution was not taken.” Well, we might speculate how things would have turned out if the regime had voluntarily moved towards democracy at that point.
While I’ve always been fond of the relationship between Porfiry Petrovich and the younger Pavel Pavlovich, you really move that to the fore in The Cleansing Flames. Did you set out here to plumb their association more deeply, or did that opportunity arise only as your outline became a full story?
It wasn’t just at the start of the novel—I like to think I was working towards this over the arc of the four books. It was certainly my intention to bring things to a head…In many ways, the drama of the period was the confrontation between generations, as depicted in [Ivan Sergeyevich] Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. You could say that’s the essential drama of revolution. I wanted to embody that conflict in the relationship between those two characters.
I understand The Cleansing Flames was inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Devils (aka The Possessed). Where are there shadows of that 1872 novel in your new book?
Oh, everywhere! That’s the story of a group of anarchists who murder one of their number in order to bind the group together. Dostoevsky based it on an actual case which he read about in the newspapers—the murder of Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov by the socialist revolutionary group The People’s Vengeance, led by Sergei Nechaev.
My story is about the same kind of grouping, about the tensions within it. Also there’s a suppressed chapter in The Devils called “At Tikhon’s,” in which the central character confesses to an appalling crime—molesting a 10-year-old girl. It’s fascinating to think what an impact it would have had on the original book if this chapter had been included. So naturally, I couldn’t resist having one of my characters make a similar confession.
Why have you chosen to stop writing the Porfiry series?
I always intended to write four books in the series. That was my original proposal to my publisher, and now I’ve got to the end of that. So it did feel like a natural point at which to stop. I don’t rule out ever writing another Porfiry Petrovich novel—or maybe it will be a novel in which Virginsky is more the central character. But I’m interested in developing other projects, including a contemporary-set series, so that’s what I’m working on now. It’s quite refreshing to be working on something set in my own country and time. I felt like I needed a break from 19th-century Russia. But now that I’ve left it behind for a while, I’m already feeling nostalgic!