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The Gentle Axe

R.N. Morris

(Penguin)

In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the beleaguered student Raskolnikov murders two women with an ax and would have escaped undetected if not for the investigating magistrate, Porfiry Petrovich. Raskolnikov wanders the dark streets and fetid tenements of St. Petersburg, handing out kopeks to its demoralized, poverty-stricken inhabitants, searching for meaning in the ghastly murders he has committed. Petrovich, however, is like an armchair detective who wanders the tortured passages of the student’s criminalized mind, searching for motive, but more important, hoping to lead the murderer to confess his crime.


R.N. Morris returns the reader to 1867 St. Petersburg in his historical mystery The Gentle Axe. A year has passed since Raskolnikov’s crime, and Petrovich is faced with another murder and another student, Virginsky, with his own curious moral compass. A man is found hanging from a tree in a park, a bloody ax in his belt loop. At his feet, half-buried in snow, is a suitcase crammed with the body of a dwarf whose head has been bashed in. Not so gentle, this ax. Nor is this crime so easily solved as a murder/suicide. Indeed, there are more killings to come and these first two dead bodies, blanketed in snow, are no preparation for the bloody carnage to follow.


Petrovich acts as a kind of anti-Sherlock Holmes. He explains his method to his assistant, Salytov:


I do not believe these mysteries are solved rationally, through the exercise of cold deductive, reasoning. ... One must go to a place within one’s self. It is a kind of Siberia of the soul. In the criminal, it is the place where these deeds are conceived and carried through. But we all have a similar place within us, or so I believe. I know that I have.


Like the catchers of serial killers in contemporary thrillers, Petrovich attempts to get inside the head of the murderer, find out what makes him tick and trace his actual steps. He empathizes with the criminal, to draw him out. And unlike the traditional armchair detective, Petrovich actively and personally pursues his quarry through the squalid crime scenes of bloody destruction.


We follow Petrovich and Virginsky through an icy maze of decrepit pawnshops, seedy brothels and vodka bars. A prince, a prostitute and a missing actor have an interest in the investigation. As Petrovich follows his leads, he must discover not only why an ax of a particular size was used (“It was in precisely such a detail that the killer would betray himself”), but also the connection between a respectable publisher of European philosophy translations and another publisher of pornographic books.


Virginsky, like his predecessor, Raskolnikov, proudly wears his cloak of poverty while moodily denouncing the injustices of his society. As a good mystery writer should, Morris weaves a complicated plot, revealing just enough to raise more questions, but not quite enough to provide any concrete answers, until the final, harried denouement.


In using characters from a previous novel, and also by specifically referring to the events of the previous novel, an author does not create a distinct stand-alone work. A sequel, no matter how well written, is still an extension of its predecessor. Morris’ characters and setting do ring true to Dostoyevsky’s originals.


So, too, does his retelling of the philosophic debates that swirled like the snow through 19th-century St. Petersburg. But Crime and Punishment is not a mystery novel. There is no mystery to solve. The murderer is not only known to the reader, but is also discovered by Petrovich fairly early in the novel. Dostoyevsky’s book is about the metaphysics of murder, the “psychological account of a crime,” he called it. In his notebooks for the novel, he wrote, “Man is not born for happiness. Man earns his happiness, and always by suffering.” Raskolnikov, deranged with guilt, bears the burden of this sentiment.


Morris’ sequel is firmly encamped in the mystery genre. Petrovich is the sleuth who must catch the killer. But Morris’ use of a generic form does not dilute the idea of human suffering that Dostoyevsky wished to explore. Morris’ twist is investigating the suffering of the investigator, not the criminal. In identifying with the killers he chases, Petrovich bears the terrible weight of suffering in the world. His profession forces him to perpetually wander the Siberia of his own soul. Morris’ novel is a book not about the metaphysics of murder, but rather the metaphysics of the investigation of murders. As such, The Gentle Axe proves a worthy sequel.

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