Back to the Scene Of a Great 'Crime'
Monday, April 9, 2007
THE GENTLE AXE
By R.N. Morris
Penguin. 305 pp. $24.95
Those fine folks at Book World recently reprinted a list of the top 10 works of fiction of all time, as chosen by a gaggle of American and British literary types. I studied this list carefully and am proud to report that I have heard of all 10 and have even read four of them all the way through. Four others I can boast of having started -- back in my reckless youth, when I would try anything -- but not yet finished. Finally, there are two books on the list of which I remain innocent. I was considering an assault on one of them, but my lawyer advises me that a little-known provision of the Patriot Act has made it a criminal offense -- a one-way ticket to Gitmo, he called it -- for an American to read a novel by a Frenchman named Marcel. The other masterpiece I have shunned was written by one "George Eliot" (I have it on good authority that this "George" is in fact a woman) who previously penned an outrage called "Silas Marner" that the State of Texas inflicted on me at the tender age of 16. The ensuing trauma caused me to give up literature for several years and most of my contemporaries to forswear its joys forever.
These literary reflections are inspired by the fact that R.N. Morris's lively, literate "The Gentle Axe" is itself partly inspired by Feodor Dostoevski's "Crime and Punishment," which did not make the top 10 (his compatriots Tolstoy and Chekhov having hogged three of the spots) but probably should have. What this Englishman Morris has done is take Porfiry Petrovich, the intrepid detective of "Crime and Punishment," and set him down in another murder case in St. Petersburg.
In the great Russian tradition, the novel takes place in the dead of winter, which means that just about everyone is freezing or starving or both. Thus, "The cold wind assaulted his face and mocked his tattered overcoat. The ice cut into him and spread along his nerve fibers with greedy, destructive haste." That poor fellow is a starving student who hates his rich father and may or may not have killed six people to compensate. He's mixed up with a charming prostitute, which is more or less inevitable, there being so many prostitutes in the novel, most with hearts of gold but one of them an old hag given to sexist pronouncements such as "There are only men! There are no gentlemen." The cast also includes a scholarly dwarf, a gay prince, a publisher who dabbles in porn and an actor whose career was cut short when, a victim of too much vodka, he relieved himself into the orchestra pit during a performance and tumbled off the stage.
Our hero, Porfiry Petrovich, is trying to solve the murders of the dwarf and a friend of his who are found in a snowbound park, one in a suitcase, the other hanging from a tree. More murders follow, along with all sorts of revelations about who is sleeping with whom and who is unexpectedly found to be someone else's father. Petrovich is an honest and diligent fellow, distinguished mostly by his "strange, colorless" eyelashes, which are in more or less constant motion. Other characters retaliate with their eyebrows, as in: "One of Salytov's eyebrows rippled inquisitively." Whether all this is Morris's invention or that of Dostoevski I cannot say, but nowhere else in the world's literature have I encountered such closely observed eyes.
Amid all the gore and all the dueling lashes and brows, the author spices his story with bizarre details. A list of porn novels includes such gems as "She Gave Herself to Gypsies" and "The Monk and the Virgins." One scene begins, for no urgent reason, "Leonid Simonovich Tolkachenko felt the turmoil of too many pickled cucumbers eaten too hastily." At an autopsy we glimpse the dead man's member, which "had the shamefaced air of a whipped dog." (Give the fellow a break, Morris!) Then the author will surprise us with a scene, as magical as it is unnecessary, at the bedside of a dying monk.
Morris is said by his publisher to have previously written a story that was made into an opera and another that was published as a comic book. That is perhaps not bad preparation for attempting 21st-century homage to 19th-century Russian literature, which always struck me as incorporating elements of both genres. Morris may have made a tactical error by inviting comparisons to Dostoevski's opus, but "The Gentle Axe" is a deftly plotted, enjoyable literary thriller. It's not another "Crime and Punishment," but it's a novel that, once begun, you're likely to read all the way through.