Authors: R. N. Morris
The Gentle Axe
in many ways feels less like a mordern tribute to Dostoyevsky than a translation of an overlooked novel by one of his contemporary imitators, transported to the present. A satisfyingly grisly yarn, mawkish and macabre—CSI: St Petersburg.”
The New York Times Book Review
“A smart, hypnotizing tale of crime and duplicity…genuinely pleasurable.”
The New York Sun
“Morris has created an atmospheric St. Petersburg, and a stylish set of intellectual problems, but what makes
The Gentle Axe
such an effective debut is its fascination with good and evil. It has earned its author the right to make use of the work of a greater writer.”
The Times Literary Supplement
The Gentle Axe
is tense, atmospheric and bristles with the kind of intelligence you’d read, well, Dostoevsky for…. A piece of literary fun.”
The Independent on Sunday
“R. N. Morris has brilliantly appropriated [Petrovich] from Dostoevsky’s novel…. Morris’s re-creation of the seamy side of nineteenth-century St. Petersburg is vivid and convincing…. As to who did it, Morris keeps the reader guessing until the end….
The Gentle Axe
is much shorter than
Crime and Punishment
, and much easier to read.”
“[Morris] delivers a lively plot, well written, with some unusual characters.”
“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 re-created. The hunt for the murderer is tense and atmospheric: the denouement brilliantly 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
“Wonderful…The plot is complex, richly textured, compelling. This is the perfect novel to read, whether it’s a dark night of the soul or simply…a dark night.”
“R. N. Morris’ quasi-sequel to Dostoevsky’s masterpiece is a surprisingly engrossing crime novel—one with a sharply etched sense of place and time, and anchored by the continuing adventures of a character already quite close to our hearts.”
The Moscow Times
THE GENTLE AXE
Born in Manchester in 1960, R. N. Morris now lives in North London with his wife and two young children. He sold his first short story to a teenage girls’ magazine while still a student at Cambridge University, where he read classics. Making his living as a freelance copywriter, he has continued to write, and occasionally publish, fiction. One of his stories, “The Devil’s Drum,” was turned into a one-act opera, which was performed at the Purcell Room in London’s South Bank. Another “Revenants,” was published as a comic book.
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Copyright © R. N. Morris, 2007
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGED THE HARDCOVER EDITION AS FOLLOWS:
Morris, R. N.
The gentle axe: a novel / R. N. Morris.
1. Rostnikov, Porfiry Petrovich (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Police—Russia (Federation)—Fiction. 3. Saint Petersburg (Russia)—History—19th century—Fiction. I. Title.
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For my mother, Norma, who likes a good murder
I would like to thank Yaroslav I. Tregubov of the St. Petersburg Historical Society, who helped a stranger find his way around nineteenth-century St. Petersburg. My thanks also to Andrey Travinin and Virginia Rounding for gently bringing to my attention, and helping me correct, certain errors in the first edition. It goes without saying that I take sole responsibility for any remaining errors.
And to Fydor Dostoevsky, I can only apologize.
“You are a gentleman!” they said. “You shouldn’t have gone to work with an axe; it’s not at all the thing for a gentleman.”
Crime and Punishment,
Fyodor Dostoevsky, translation, Jessie Coulson
The events described below take place approximately a year and a half after the famous case of Raskolnikov the student, in which the investigator Porfiry Petrovich played such a crucial role.
T WAS WELL
into the morning when the darkness began to fade.
Zoya Nikolaevna Petrova moved through Petrovsky Park with unthinking determination, as fat and dark in her bundled layers as a beetle. The paths, which in the summer were filled with strollers, were now hidden under snow. But she had no use for them anyway. Zoya Nikolaevna trod her own path. She was heading north, away from the frozen boating lake. Her steps were slow and uneven. Every shift in her squat frame sent a fresh stab of rheumatism shooting through the joints of her hips. Whenever she had to stoop to add a stick to her basket of firewood, it was with some effort and pain that she straightened up. But she thought of the little one shivering at home, and of the sacrifices Lilya had had to make; and was able to stoop again and straighten again and continue her steps.
The things a woman must do. It had never been easy, though some would have accused her of choosing the easy way once. But what did they know of the cost to her soul, or of the tears she had shed over the years? Tears at the start of it, when she had first felt a stranger’s gaze possessing her. She had always found it harder to endure their eyes on her than their hands. And tears at the end of it, when the mirror showed her looks creased by age and a figure absurdly fat and ugly; and she felt herself worn out to the bones. Yes, tears when even that recourse was closed to her. Why should there not have been tears? That life, that way of living was all she had known, and there had been some comfort in it.
Tears came again now. But they were simply moisture drawn by the stinging cold. She felt no sadness and no nostalgia for the life she had lost, no grief for the countless miscarriages, not even for those that were accidental. Her nose ran, and she let it. It was one of the small freedoms of solitude.
She was not lonely. Not while she had the thought of the little one at home and of Lilya, who called her mother and allowed herself in turn to be called daughter by Zoya.
Who would have thought that the way out of her troubles would be to take on more troubles?
Zoya felt the land dip. Her gaze was fixed on the ground ahead of her, scanning for firewood. She had left the little one sleeping and so was anxious to get back. She couldn’t bear the thought of the child waking alone. Ah, but little Vera could sleep for hours in this cold. Sometimes Zoya thought she would never wake.
She told herself not to worry. She must gather all the wood she could carry. What they didn’t use themselves, she could sell. It would be a crime to go home without a mountain of fagots strapped to her back and a full basket. It would be better for them all if she took as long as she needed.
But Lilya had not come home last night, which worried her too, if she thought about it. The girl must have had a busy night. That was it. If so, she should rejoice. There would be something good to eat today. Lilya was a generous soul, and touchingly grateful. She never forgot that it was Zoya who had taught her the things she needed to know to keep from starving.
Zoya stooped to grab a scrawny twig. Nothing was allowed to escape her hunt for fuel. She felt the earth pull her overburdened torso down and braced herself to take a stand against the tyranny of gravity, forcing a clenched knuckle into her aching spine. She stood and straightened, swooning in the intense and nearly blissful shifts of pain.
And then she saw him, there ahead of her, his shoulders hunched forward, head skewed. He seemed to be waiting for her. He was a big man, tall and burly, with a massy beard that confidently matched the bulk of his person. He was dressed in an old army greatcoat. The flaps of a sheepskin cap covered his ears. He had the bloated face of a vodka drinker and cunning pinpoint eyes. His feet were plunged into tarred boots, the toes of which floated barely an inch above the white ground, a comic dancer frozen in the execution of a pirouette.
The birch trunk that bore him was bent like an archer’s bow. A sudden howl of wind set the tree vibrating. A flurry of snowflakes danced as though magnetized. The hanging man spun around.
On the ground near his feet she saw something brown half-buried in the snow.
OYA CROSSED HERSELF
with two fingers and hesitated. Drifting flakes thickened and massed, then rushed her face. The hanging man scared her. But her instincts sensed the promise of something more valuable than firewood.
She lowered her gaze and resumed her slow, shuffling step toward him.
Her foot kicked against the object in the snow. It was hard and unyielding. Risking pain, she bent to clear the snow from it with a sweep of her arm. It was a large leather suitcase.
The case was too heavy for Zoya to lift. She dragged it away from the body on the tree, leaving a broad trail.
Her fingers worked the catches, which were stiff but not locked. The lid of the case sprang upward a little, as if recoiling from what was contained within. Zoya lifted it open.
He was curled like a fetus in the womb waiting to be born. The falling snow was quick to welcome him, broad flakes laying themselves with the delicacy of a caul over a jutting shoulder.
His head, she noticed, was split open, hair roughly parted on either side of a dark glistening secret. It struck her, this head, as strangely large.
He was on his side. His left eye rebuked her. She made the sign of the cross for a second time.
She avoided the staring eye and took in the rest of him.
Oh but he is tiny! she realized. Tiny arms and tiny legs, and how did he fit all that he needed—a heart, lungs, kidney, liver—into that tiny little body? But he was a man and not a child. A dark beard was trimmed to a point on his chin.
He was dressed in a threadbare suit, the sleeves and trouser legs severely cut off and hemmed.
Without knowing she was going to do it, Zoya searched his pockets. She averted her eyes as her hands went about their business. The things a woman must do.
Her fingers closed on something hard and compact. She retrieved a pack of playing cards, still in its cardboard box. She thumbed out the first few cards. It was one of those pornographic packs, with naked girls for queens, horny satyrs for kings, and hermaphrodites taking the place of jacks. The wind snapped up a small slip of paper that had been tucked away among them. Zoya let it go. The cards were old and well used, but she didn’t doubt she could sell them to some fool. She conjured them away.
The tips of her fingers probed the seams of his every pocket but came up with nothing. She was no longer aware of her fear. Something more urgent than fear compelled her.
She bustled across to the other one. She was racing against the falling snow. And she was afraid that someone might discover her. But there was something else too. A grim eagerness.
She pulled open the frozen greatcoat and gave a high squeal of horror. There, tucked into the belt of his trousers, was a short-handled axe. The blade seemed to leer at her. It was like a tongue licking the blood that stained it.
She looked up into the hanging man’s face. Such a big brute. What a bully, to have killed that poor little fellow in the case. No wonder he had taken his own life. It was the shame of it.
She carried on investigating the clothing of the corpse. She thought of all the men she had undressed. They had picked her bones, and now the boot was on the other foot. She giggled. She was having the last laugh now. One hand delved into the pocket of his breeches. She felt something metallic. It was small and irregularly shaped and turned out to be a key. In itself it had no value. But who knew what treasures it would unlock? It joined the pack of cards in the secret compartments of her dress.
Her hand now burrowed into the inside breast pocket of his greatcoat and straightaway felt the contents. Two things, she judged, about the same size, one soft and papery, the other hard. She pulled out the first, a bulging envelope. It was pale lilac, unaddressed and unsealed.
Inside the envelope was a bundle of banknotes.
She darted quick glances in every direction, certain now that someone would disturb her. She took out the money, a rainbow of color in the bleached landscape, and counted the notes.
Zoya’s hands trembled but not from the cold. The lilac envelope fell. She raised her face to the falling snow. Six thousand rubles! Tears now, real tears of emotion, mingled with the flakes thawing on her cheeks. She folded the cash away inside the layers of her extended being and went on her way laughing.