Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review of A Gentle Axe by R.N. Morris (Penguin, 2007)

St Petersburg, 1866.  A man is found hanging from a tree in a park.  At his feet is a suitcase containing the body of a dwarf.  It appears the man killed the dwarf then took his own life, however, investigating magistrate Porfiry Petrovich is not so sure.  Despite the protests of others he pursues an investigation into the deaths.  His enquiries convince him that there was foul play, but proving it and finding the killer is not going to be straightforward, especially when there is no clear motive or suspect.  Methodologically he starts to piece together the lives of the two victims, hunting for clues as to who might have killed them.

A Gentle Axe is the first book in the Porfiry Petrovich series set in St Petersburg at the late nineteenth century.  The central character is borrowed from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and works as an investigating magistrate in the bustling city, which is stratified by wealth and class.  In conducting his cases Porfiry Petrovich has to negotiate the formal social structures and politics, as well as mix with the poor and needy.  It requires diplomacy and determination, especially when certain elements would prefer the case he is working on – the death of a bulky yardmaster and cantankerous dwarf – to be declared closed without a fuss.  Morris does a good job of detailing the character and atmosphere of the city and its social relations.  The characterisation and the interactions between them is nicely observed.  The procedural-style plot is engaging with Porfiry Petrovich stoically unearthing and following clues, though some of the detective work is based on intuition rather than deduction and the denouement involves plenty of accusation and conjecture but not much concrete evidence.  Perhaps unsurprisingly then the reader is left guessing as to who the murder is and their motives until the end.  Overall, an interesting and entertaining historical crime tale.

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