R.N. Morris is the author of the historical crime series featuring detective Porfiry Petrovich from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Londoner Morris sets his tales in St. Petersburg of the mid to late nineteenth century. The first in the series, A Gentle Axe, was hailed as “a satisfyingly grisly yarn… CSI: St. Petersburg,” by the New York Times Book Review. Friend of Scene of the Crime, author Alan Furst, noted of this same novel that it “has a vast depth of Russian soul; mysterious, compassionate, and utterly irresistible.”
The second in the series, A Vengeful Longing, was shortlisted for the 2008 CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger, while the third, A Razor Wrapped in Silk, just out, involves the Romanovs in the murder of a society beauty. Morris has also written a stand-alone contemporary thriller, Taking Comfort, that explores the anxieties and survival strategies of a post-9/11 world. Versatile and prolific, Morris has additionally written the libretto for the opera Cocteau in the Underworld, with music by Ed Hughes and commissioned by the Royal Opera.
Roger, it is a delight to have you here on Scene of the Crime. I am a huge fan of A Gentle Axe. I set my novels in a time not too distant from your time period and I appreciate the immense amount of research that must go into bringing St. Petersburg in the 1860s to life.
Could you describe your connection to that city and time?
I became interested in St Petersburg through reading Russian novels, specifically Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. That’s where the idea for A Gentle Axe came from, as my idea was to take a character from Crime and Punishment – the investigating magistrate Porfiry Petrovich – and put him centre stage in his own series of adventures. My St Petersburg is hugely influenced by Dostoevsky’s vision of the city. I don’t live there and it’s not easy for me to get there frequently. In fact, I had never visited St Petersburg before I wrote Gentle Axe. I went there after, while I was researching the next book in the series, A Vengeful Longing. It was quite an amazing experience for me, almost trippy! All these places that I had conjured up in my imagination actually existed! It almost felt as if I had imagined the place into existence. I know that sounds a very egotistical thing to say, but it was a very intense experience. I was reassured how like the city I had imagined the actual city was.
What things about the historic St. Petersburg make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Dostoevsky described St Petersburg as the most abstract and premeditated city in the world. It was a city dreamt up by Peter the Great, a city that almost simply appeared in the mists around the Gulf of Finland, built on the marshes around the River Neva by conscripted serf-labourers, many of whom died in its construction. So there is this sense of a wildness and cruelty beneath the civility. Situated in the northwest corner of Russia, a remote spot at the time of its foundation, St Petersburg looked out to Europe, as Peter’s window on the west. But it was more fundamental than that. His vision was to regenerate Russia as a modern power. He moved all his nobles and the government of the empire to his new capital and the old Slavic capital, Moscow, was abandoned. It was a powerfully symbolic move.
In terms of the city’s physical geography, it’s a very low-lying city, topographically flat, consisting of a series of islands. At the beginning of the eighteenth century there were over a hundred of these islands, though over time many of the channels and streams between them were filled in so that there are around forty today. The streets were laid out in a very rational way, with three amazingly wide, straight avenues converging on a central point, and a network of streets spanning out from them. Peter had travelled a lot in Europe and had been particularly struck by Amsterdam, and the influence of that city can be seen in St Petersburg’s canals. He and his successors employed European architects to build neo-classical palaces, modelling their new city on the great cities of Europe. They deliberately turned their back on Russian architectural forms. There are relatively few onion-domed churches in St Petersburg. But there are a lot of classical forms, such as caryatids and atlantes – the stone figures that appear on the outsides of buildings, seemingly supporting the upper storeys on their heads. And there is tremendous uniformity, with lines of facades stretching away along long straight streets.
There’s also a feeling I have of St Petersburg being a stage set. The focus is on facades, wonderful facades of neo-classical palaces, but the interesting thing for a writer is what is concealed behind them. That’s where the crime writer’s imagination kicks in. And for writers like Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky, St Petersburg was the ‘fantastic city’, a city where anything was possible. A sense of this informs my vision of the city too.
Did you consciously set out to use St. Petersburg as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I think I always knew that setting would be important, though I don’t think I ever formulated this idea of setting as character as explicitly as your question does. But I think it is something that’s going on. There are scenes where one character or another is alone with the city and seems to engage in a kind of mute dialogue with it, where some aspect of the city’s architecture or geography or history proves decisive in bringing out an aspect of character, in aiding one of those crucial revelations that are the vertebrae of a story. It’s something that I can see happening when I look at the stories in retrospect, but I am one of those writers who proceeds by instinct. I feel my way into the story. It was never a conscious strategy. The city’s character serves in a way like a foil for the human characters, enabling them to be themselves, or even come out of themselves. It reflects the characters back to themselves.
Not sure how to answer this except to say that it is always very important for me to know where a particular scene is set in St Petersburg. So I have a map, or several maps, dating from the period, or as close to it as I can get, open on my desk as I write. I have to know a street name and I have to find out as much as I can about that street and the area it’s in as I can. One of the most useful books I have is one called St. Petersburg: Industrialization and Change by James H. Bater, which has break downs of the different regions showing what proportion of different classes lived where, what industries, if any were focused on each area, and so on. There’s also an online encyclopedia of St Petersburg, which is an amazing resource, especially as it has lots of historical photographs. Photographs are very important for getting a sense of place when you can’t actually go there, and let’s face it none of us can physically go to nineteenth century St Petersburg. So I try to have an overall sense of the place which informs the physical shape of the story. The Encyclopedia of St Petersburg also lists the different names that a street has had over the years. In Russia, this can be particularly confusing.
One of the things I deliberately did with the series of four books was set each one in a different season, so that would give me the opportunity to portray the city in a very different way each time. That was a simple way for me to make each book have a distinct feel, but it also allowed me to explore the experience of living in the city in the nineteenth century more fully.
How does Porfiry Petrovich interact with his surroundings?
When I first started thinking about Porfiry Petrovich – who as I said above is not originally my character – I saw him very much as being defined by the fact that he is a resident of St Petersburg. That’s where his openness to new ideas such as psychology, his rationalism, and the liberal aspects of his character all came from. In that respect, the character of Porfiry Petrovich – as imagined by me – looks west like the city he inhabits. At the same time, I have given him more conservative traits too. For example, in contrast to his assistant Virginsky, he is a believer, and his Russian Orthodox faith is very important to him. I wanted this to represent his roots which were from outside St Petersburg, very much more old Russian, and Slavic. I see him as having come to the capital as a student to study law, and never having left. After all, this was the administrative centre of the empire and he is a career civil servant. So there is a tension within Porfiry Petrovich, which I feel is somehow the tension of St Petersburg at the time. As for his attitude to St Petersburg, that is at its most negative in A Vengeful Longing, which is set in a very hot summer, when the open drains are stinking and there’s a plague of flies building up and people are dying of cholera. The fault lines that appear in the city seem to represent the fundamental problems with the political regime, and although Porfiry is a loyal servant of that regime, he is pushed to the extreme.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
So far only the first book, A Gentle Axe, has been taken up by a Russian publisher. I was very pleased when that happened and my author copy of the Russian edition is one of my proudest possessions. I’ve been contacted by a few native Russian readers (though they’ve read my books in English) and the feedback has been amazingly positive. One guy, who is a native of St Petersburg, commented on the authentic St Petersburg atmosphere. That meant a lot to me.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I’m sure I have made plenty. The Russian names cause me the greatest problem and I did make an embarrassing goof in my first book, which I was able to correct for the reprint. Every Russian has a patronymic, i.e. a middle name that means ‘son of…’ or ‘daughter of…’. The patronymic formed from Pavel is Pavlovich, meaning son of Paul. In my first book, I spelt it Pavelovich throughout. It may not seem like much but I was mortified when it was pointed out to me. I’m sorry, it’s not very hilarious!
Of your Porfiry Petrovich novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
Picking out a favorite book is a little like picking out a favorite child, so I’m reluctant to do it! But the following passage at the beginning of the fourth chapter of A Razor Wrapped in Silk illustrates, I think, the way I try to use setting in my books:
“In a city of palaces, the Naryskin Palace did everything it could to assert its pre-eminence, shouldering out of the way its neighbours on the Fontanka Embankment. Built on a plot of land assigned to the first Prince Naryskin by Peter the Great, in gratitude for his services in the war against Sweden, it over-looked the river with a flamboyantly remodelled façade, a blushing pink celebration of Russian baroque.
“The evening light exploded softly over it. The day had been clear and bright, a welcome break in the sullen dampness that had squatted over the city for the past week or so. This was autumn’s other face, golden-hued and expansive, but all too briefly seen. The falling leaves had a brittle-edged crispness. There was a crunch, rather than a squelch, under foot. But it felt like remission. To be shown their glittering city for a day only reminded the citizens of St Petersburg of what they were soon to lose, irretrievably, under the dark, endless months to come. They were days away from the first snows, and they knew it.
“Maria Petrovna gazed up at the stone figures on the façade with some sympathy, seeing in their abashed poses a symbolic representation of her own uneasy relationship with the houses of the rich: that of the attached outsider. This was, after all, the world she came from, although the opulence and scale of the Naryskin residence far outstripped that of her own or any other noble family’s home.
“But the Naryskin Palace was not so much a place to live as a declaration of self-importance. Ostentation was the guiding aesthetic, even in the private apartments, as if the Naryskins themselves were the ones who most needed reminding of their own wealth and status.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Dostoevsky, of course. My St Petersburg couldn’t exist without him – it’s as simple as that. In general, I try to read as widely as I can, and I’m influenced by, and learn from, everything I read. As I said before, I am an intuitive writer. I don’t consciously look at other writers and think, “Right, that’s the way to do place”. I’m not sure I was influenced by it, because it’s a very different kind of book to the ones I write, but an amazing book for this whole ‘spirit of place’ thing is Thursbitch by Alan Garner. Alan Garner was one of my favorite writers when I was younger, and I was delighted to discover that he’s written for adults too.
What’s next for your protagonist?
I’ve just completed the fourth book in my St Petersburg-set novels featuring Porfiry Petrovich. It’s called The Superfluous Man and is scheduled for publication in 2011. My plan was always to write a quartet, so at the time of writing my belief, intention, understanding is that that will be the last Porfiry book I’ll write. I certainly feel that I’m ready for a break. I’d like to write something set closer to home, and perhaps closer in time too. But we shall have to see!
Roger, thanks for a fascinating introduction to nineteenth-century St. Petersbug and to your Porfiry Petrovich novels.
For more information on R.N. Morris, visit his homepage.