A Vengeful Longing
This is the sequel to the highly acclaimed A Gentle Axe, the first of Morris’s books to feature the investigating magistrate Porfiry Petrovich from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Set in St Petersburg in the late 1860s, a doctor’s wife and son die suddenly, in excruciating pain, at the height of summer. When this murder is rapidly followed by others, Porfiry Petrovich acknowledges that this is one of those rare cases that challenge every ounce of his intellect and where immediate suspects are innocent. It gradually becomes clear that the chain of interlinking facts and circumstances is extraordinarily dense as Porfiry Petrovich tells his young assistant, Pavel Pavlovich, they must delve into every aspect of people’s lives because, like the stinking canals, everything is connected. The trail leads him deep into St. Petersburg’s worst slums and asylums, among the forgotten inhabitants of the city who live in horrendous poverty, stench and squalor, before he is able to glimpse a pattern and the elusive figure of the murderer starts to emerge.
Morris has a compelling knowledge of St Petersburg and every page of the story is securely anchored by his brilliant recreation of time and place. But even the most vivid selection of historical detail will pall unless an author taps into the minds of his characters. This is Morris’s great strength: his characters are so fully rounded that you follow their thought processes – or are alienated by them. Porfiry Petrovich displays an understanding of human psychology that is fitting in view of his origins, and in doing so raises the bar for other writers in this genre. An excellent read.