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Apr/May 2007 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with R.N. Morris, author of The Gentle Axe

by Jim Younger


Morris has dug deep into the Russian soul in this book, and his dark, dank, dangerous St. Petersburg, with its snowbound, windswept streets and stinking slums, is brilliantly recreated. The hunt for the murderer is tense and atmospheric: the denouement brutally shocking and moving. A worthy sequel to one of the greatest novels ever written and a cracking thriller in its own right. —The York Press.

...a classic whodunnit where layer upon layer is opened for inspection in accordance with the timeline of Porfiry Petrovich's detection, much like investigating the substance of a Russian doll. —It's a Crime

Buy now from Amazon! I first met Roger when Taking Comfort was published last year by Macmillan New Writing. It's a fine novel, and has had a good reception from readers and reviewers. I commend it to you. He's now brought out his second book within a year, writing this time as R.N. Morris. Faber published A Gentle Axe in the U.K. in February, and Penguin is bringing it out in the U.S.A. as The Gentle Axe in late March. It's also being translated into Russian. Porfiry Petrovich, from Crime and Punishment, is the central character of A Gentle Axe, so the Russian translation is an accolade indeed. I caught up with Roger in a cyberspace shebeen, and gently interrogated him.

Here's an excerpt from A Gentle Axe:

Porfiry Petrovich transferred the cigarette from fingers to lips, a moment of intense anticipation. It was not pleasure so much that he anticipated as clarity. Porfiry always insisted that he smoked for rational—he would even say professional—reasons.

He closed the brightly coloured enamel cigarette case with a soft click and returned it to the inside pocket of his jacket.

A copy of the Periodical was open on the desk in front of him. Porfiry flattened the pages, seeming to stroke the words in preparation to reading them. It was an article entitled, "Why do they do it?" An introductory line promised: "A discussion of the motivation of educated, titled, and talented perpetrators of crime and injustice." The author was given as "R."

Porfiry struck a match and leant forward to meet its flame. As he inhaled, his blood quickened, and he felt both absorbed by and in control of his mental and perceptual processes.

The elegant syntax of the article revealed its secrets to him. He experienced it as a dance of ideas, inevitable and inexorable. He frowned, not because he was confused, but for the pleasure of frowning. He was acutely self-conscious.

Something began to impinge on his reverie.

Salytov.

He felt the catalyst of cigarette smoke lose its power. His entire being was no longer focused onto the pages of the journal. He was aware now of the green leather surface of the writing desk upon which it rested. And now the rest of the room came back to him, with its government-issue furniture, the imitation leather-covered sofa, the chairs, the escritoire and bookcase, all made from the same tawny wood. But more than anything he felt the looming presence of the doors.

Salytov was shouting. Again.

Two doors led off from Porfiry Petrovich's "chambers," as this modest room in the Department of the Investigation of Criminal Causes was rather grandly known. One was the door to his private apartments, provided for him, like everything else, by the government. The other was the door to the Haymarket District Police Bureau in Stolyarny Lane.

The doors symbolised Porfiry's dilemma. Either he could take his journal and his cigarette and retreat into his inner sanctuary (although it was well past the hour when he was required to make himself available for his official duties as an investigator); or he could step out into the chaos of the receiving area of the police station and confront his colleague Ilya Petrovich Salytov.

Porfiry ground the stub of his cigarette into a crystal ashtray.

 

JY     In reading A Gentle Axe, I was impressed by the way Porfiry seems to step from the pages of Crime and Punishment into your book without any false note. I accepted him straight away, no quibbles. What led you to appropriate Porfiry, and what challenges did you face in setting him up so convincingly?

RNM     That's a terrific compliment, Jim, thank you. If that's how it comes across then I'm very pleased, although I always reckoned that my Porfiry Petrovich would have to be my own creation. It's a little like the classical writers taking their characters from the mythological canon. Agamemnon, Oedipus, Orestes—each playwright would treat these received characters in a different way. I feel that we have a modern mythology available to us and the figure of the detective has a place in that. Porfiry Petrovich is one incarnation of it. I merely invited him to walk into my story and I was very fortunate that he consented. As for what led me to it, I think it was probably because when I first encountered Crime and Punishment, as a precocious teenager, I was drawn to it by a slightly misleading blurb which described it as one of the first detective stories. I was deeply into Conan Doyle at the time, I seem to remember, and I think I might have been expecting a whodunit. Anyhow, the idea came back to me when I re-read the book in my thirties. At first it amused me, as an idea, and then it took hold of me and I thought "I'm going to have to write that bloody book!" It's only now, with the book's publication and some of the critical reaction to it that I'm beginning to realise what a rash and foolhardy thing it was to attempt. I write instinctively, not thinking too much about what I'm doing. So to some extent I don't know how I did it.

JY     You've described A Gentle Axe as a genre novel. As I was reading I felt I was being played with to some extent—and entertainingly—among a mix of genres, or sub-genres. For example, the detailed autopsy descriptions. I'm more familiar with such scenes in the work of Thomas Harris, Kathy Reichs, and Patricia Cornwell, where "forensic procedural" is almost a genre in itself. Would you care to comment on your handling of genre?

RNM     The idea of writing within a genre was very appealing to me. The discipline, the expectations, the limitations, the constraint of form—I wanted to see what would happen to my writing when I took all that on. My imagination does tend towards the darker side, which naturally led me towards murder and other criminal acts. I was drawn towards historical crime specifically because you still have the possibility of a detective detecting, as it were. Modern police procedural, with DNA testing and all that CSI stuff, kind of takes the fun out of it, I think. The nuances in genre that you talk about are interesting to me. I think I didn't want it to be of the "cosy crime" genre. It was important for me, somehow, to look at the dead bodies, to confront death in the story in a kind of literal way, so I think that's why I put in those scenes. I had in mind Gorky Park too, and I was not ashamed to pay some kind of homage to that book, which gripped me tremendously when I read it. But part of what I believe a writer has to do is show people stuff that they can't otherwise see, or that they might not want to look at. That probably sounds really pretentious. But I think you do have to be there at the dying, sometimes, and gaze on the dead.

JY     Was it your intention to implicate the reader in the crimes of the book? There is at times a strong element of voyeurism. I'm thinking here of the disturbing feeling I had when the photographs of abusive behaviour were being shown.

RNM     Crime and Punishment is a novel about transgression. In fact, I believe a more literal translation of the title may be Transgression and Punishment. The original Porfiry Petrovich is, I think, a transgressive character and there is this idea, even in Dostoevsky, of the rule-breaking detective. It has of course become something of a cliché of crime writing. But this aspect of Porifry is there in the original book. Up to a point. And of course that is the point from which I begin! What I mean is if there is one thing I was conscious of doing it was playing with this transgressive aspect of Porfiry, making him an ambiguous character. He can be quite ruthless. He is certainly very manipulative. He seems to have few scruples, at times. He is willing to lie—in fact, in Crime and Punishment there is this idea of him as a prankster. Apparently, he once claimed to be getting married, and even bought a wedding suit. But there was no fiancée, and no intended wedding—it was all a deception. I have to say I found that extremely suggestive. Of course this side of him is balanced by the fact that all his ambiguity and ruthlessness is in the service of a higher moral purpose. If along the way the reader does become complicit, then fine. I'm happy with that. It's part of saying, "If you want this to be a comfortable read, then you're in for a shock."

JY     If the reader is implicated in some way (whether you intend this or not) what is it in A Gentle Axe that enables the reader to redeem himself? Is it identification with Porfiry, who is of course, a "believer"?

RNM     To return to Crime and Punishment, modern readers, I think, sometimes feel that the religious aspect—the ending in particular—is almost tacked on and goes against the main thrust of the book. Raskolnikov is saved, and yet he has spent the whole book going to the devil. But actually Dostoevsky was a believer and his religion was central to him as a man and a writer. There's a lot of religious symbolism throughout Crime and Punishment, and the book can be read as a religious parable, I think. So in emphasising Porfiry's faith, I was picking up on this. One of the really impressive, humbling, awe-inspiring things about Dostoevsky as a writer is that he uses his writing to test and challenge the most fundamental aspects of himself—in this case his religious faith. He doesn't shy away from pinning the direst horrors on his God, the grinding poverty, the nihilistic murderer, the self-destructive drunks, the child-abusing suicide. He presents all this, he acknowledges its presence, the presence of evil, in God's creation and says, "I still believe." So I wanted to reflect this, and to be as unflinching as Dostoevsky, if I could. If this does become redemptive for the reader then that's interesting, but I don't think it's something I could have engineered.

JY     Do the humorous moments let the reader off the hook? They certainly relax the tension (there is a delicious moment at the end of the autopsy in Chapter 20, where... but I won't spoil it!) As a reader, I'm grateful for those moments, but I have the feeling that the humour is there to do more than help me relax. What's your view of the function of humour in a crime novel where the fundamental tone is particularly dark?

RNM     Life is full of humorous moments, and they intrude at the most inappropriate times. Life refuses to remain solemn, even if we feel that it should. If there is any truth in the book, the humour is a part of it.

JY     It's a commonplace of criticism that crime fiction attempts to confront and contain the monstrous, to tame it somehow. My own view is that this is often true—but not just for crime fiction. (Frankenstein is an archetype here, where the monster is constructed from the most abject fragments.) Do you think that this notion of taming the monstrous is useful for an appreciation of A Gentle Axe?

RNM     I don't know whether I want to tame the monstrous—or whether I believe that's even possible. But I do certainly want to confront it. Okay, yes, I admit, the perpetrator gets discovered and arrested, in keeping with the conventions of this type of crime fiction. So to that extent there is containment. But that doesn't undo the deeds. The crimes cannot be uncommitted. I sometimes think that in crime fiction, particularly the cosy end of the spectrum, there is not enough grief, not enough horror, not enough suffering. The sense of a parlour game that you sometimes get was not where I wanted to be. The short answer, I suppose, is that I hope that the monstrous remains monstrous.

JY     I'm impressed by the sheer craft of the book. In the opening of Chapter 14, Kezel the cabinetmaker dreams he is "constructing an interminable twisting staircase for the Tsar's new palace... He wanted to explain that he had no experience or knowledge of building staircases." The passage goes on to describe his anxiety and difficulties: "And now the pieces that he had shaped would no longer fit together. Joints that he had carefully measure refused to marry up." I was amused by what I thought was you putting in a joke about the difficulties of crafting genre fiction. Any comment?

RNM     It's interesting you should mention that. I'm very fond of that particular passage, for some reason. I wonder if you have just given me the reason. When I think about what we do as writers I often try to think of it in terms of other creative—or constructive—activities, and the analogy of the cabinet maker does occur. Zadie Smith used it recently, I think, though to conclude that there are fundamental differences between the two endeavours. When a cabinet maker sets out to make something he knows that the end result will be what he intends it to be, whereas a writer can have no such certainty. Kezel's dream, or nightmare, in its frustration and sense of inescapable failure, does seem to resonate with this. But really, at the time, all I was trying to do was imagine the kind of dream a cabinet maker might have. I like your interpretation of it a lot, particularly as it makes me seem much cleverer than I actually am.

JY     Well, as for craft, I believe Walter Benjamin wrote that to make a decent table nowadays, a person would need the genius of Michelangelo! Joking aside—let's turn to a comment from an early review. In the Times Literary Supplement, Roz Kaveny writes: "Morris has created an atmospheric St Petersburg, and a stylish set of intellectual problems, but what makes A Gentle Axe such an effective debut is its fascination with good and evil." There is a strong metaphysical element in the book - references to the soul and so on. Is this something that you personally find congenial, and if so, does your attraction to Russian literature and settings help you explore this metaphysical realm?

RNM     I don't think of myself as particularly metaphysical but it does seem to come through in my writing. Quite often, actually. With this book it's just where the period and the setting and the characters led me—which may be a disingenuous answer. I accept there must have been some reason why I chose this period, this setting, these characters—or rather why I was able to commit to them enough to write the book. I'm a product of a secular, material culture. I heard Britain described as a post-Christian country. Possibly I've closed a lot of metaphysical doors, embracing the godless, rational, (well, as much as I am able) materialistic view of existence. But the metaphysical doesn't go away, it seems. Maybe that's what my writing is for, to allow me to exist in that dimension, at least while I am writing. I will admit that I am drawn to the profundity and authority and wonder of this somehow Russian sense of mystery. Perhaps I will surprise everyone, especially my wife, by converting to Russian Orthodoxy!

JY     I see you've just finished another Porfiry novel. Clearly, he has the potential to go on for a good few volumes yet, given the chance. Would you ever consider moving him to another location, perhaps within the vast Russian Empire, or maybe to Savannah, South Carolina, in the aftermath of the Civil War—or to England, where he might rub shoulders with Wilkie Collins's Sergeant Cuff (who has been appropriated already, I admit)?

RNM     Well, for me the city of St Petersburg is as central a character as Porfiry, for the moment at least. So what you suggest is hard to imagine. I've got a total of four Porfiry Petrovich storylines mapped out, of which A/The Gentle Axe is the first. They are all set in St Petersburg, and the idea of the city is central to them, I think. After that, we'll have to see.

JY     Last year you had Taking Comfort published by Macmillan, under the name Roger Morris. Can we expect more from Roger, or will R.N. lead the field for a while?

RNM     I would like to return to being Roger Morris at some point, though it is very useful to be two people. It helps me to keep two strands of my writing—contemporary urban (Roger Morris); historical crime (R.N. Morris)—distinct. The problem is, I think there are actually more than two strands to my writing. In fact, I think there could possibly be an infinite number of strands, so I wonder if I will be forced to invent a new identity for everything I write. In my own mind, I'm fairly clear that Taking Comfort was almost as influenced by Crime and Punishment as A Gentle Axe, though in a very different way. In that book, I think, it is the influence of Raskolnikov that's felt. It's less direct, but it is there. I mean, you have a character taken over by a destructive idea, a disordered state of mind. The two books were conceived in parallel and written in quick succession, so there is bound to be an overlap. It's a different way of coming at similar themes. A different way of exorcising the same ghosts. For the time being, however, I am R.N. Morris. I've shut Roger up in a box with a padlock on it. When his muffled cries start to keep me awake I may let him out.

JY     It would be fun to explore the notion of the author as ventriloquist another time. For now, I'll say thanks, Roger, and may you go from strength to strength.

RNM     My pleasure, Jim.

 

A Gentle Axe (UK edition)
Faber and Faber 2007
ISBN-10: 0571232051

The Gentle Axe (US edition)
Penguin Press 2007
ISBN-10: 1594201129

Taking Comfort
Macmillan New Writing 2006
ISBN-10: 0230001378

 

Check out Roger's blog.

 

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