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[77] The Gentle Axe – R. N. Morris

gentleaxe.jpg“Or at least he thinks it is. It is a document conferring ownership of his soul to whoever is in possession of this paper. He placed his soul in the possession of the pawnbroker, the Jew Lyamshin. He believed that because he was no longer in possession of it, his soul would be untouched by his crimes.”

About a year and a half after the famous case of Raskolnikov, who killed a pawnbroker woman by splitting her skull with an axe, the investigator Porfiry Petrovich found himself tackling yet another mind-boggling quasi-copycat case. An old woman in search of firewood in Petrovsky Park stumbled into a horrifying scene: A burly peasant was found hanging from a bowed tree by a rope around his neck, a bloody axe tucked into his belt. Nearby, buried in the snow, packed neatly in a suitcase, was the body of a dwarf whose skull was split in two.

Conventional wisdom dictated that the peasant, who was out of guilt and shame had taken his life after he killed the dwarf. But it didn’t take long for Porfiry to perceive that the truth of the matter was far more complicated than the crime scene might suggest. First glimpse of evidence and autopsy reports confirmed his theory that a thrid party, who was still at large, was involved. That it wasn’t the peasant the murderer wanted dead so much as the dwarf revealed how calculated and meticulous the plan was. The peasant, one named Borya, was simply there to take the blame as the perpetrator staged his suicide to make it look like a homicide-suicide case.

As Porfiry’s investigation veers off Borya and Goryanchikov, a parade of annoyances, mysterious occurrences, and petty crimes that seemed utterly unrelated manifested, poised between suspicion and bafflement. A pornographer accused a young prostitute of stealing money. But no sooner had he made the accusation did he disappear. A pawn ticket for philosophy books belonging to an impoverished student Virginsky was found in the dwarf’s pocket. A sobbing middle-aged woman confessed murdering a daughter whom she never had. A plaintive prince reported his missing friend Ratazyayev, a homosexual actor who was last seen with a leather suitcase on a train. The mishap actor was known to have engaged in vile business with the pornographer.

As new leads seemed to dwell on the same group of people, he came to realize that all of the random occurrences were in fact related, with some invisible connections insinuated to lives of all the people. The probe took him from the squalid tenements, slums, brothels, pawn shop, and taverns of St Petersberg to reputable publisher of philosophy books and resplendent mansion of prestigious family in the genteel elite of the city. Despite his critic’s effort to thwart him, the connections between these extreme spheres multiplied and became very plausible.

The Gentle Axe is a cleverly written novel that sucks in the reader from the very beginning. The unexpected, shocking resolution after many hair-pin turns of events is one doesn’t expect coming. It’s like the specious calm before the storm. The vast number of threads veering off to different directions, at times deceptive and elusive, makes any effort of assumptions infeasible, let alone establishing the truth. The key to the truth lies in the philosophy texts the dwarf has yet finished translating. The extraneous materials of the translation suggested his seeing the tragedy coming.

In probing the darkest places of human heart we are confronted the question of conscience and soul. Is it possible for the soul to be detached from conscience? In other words, if a man commits evil when he is not in possession of his soul, will his conscience be spared from purging? Whereas Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment believes he can kill the louts, improve the mankind, and escape the purging of soul owing to a transcendental conscience, his comrades in The Gentle Axe decide to keep confer their soul to another person. But is that the way out of moral responsibility? Is it ever possible to be free from the clutch of religion? Some, like Margarita in The Master and Margarita, would rather negotiate with the devil and not to be brought to justice. Before anyone knows the answer, maybe we should all, like the young prostitute, confer to good deeds.

7 Responses

  1. Sounds a fascinating story about the relationship between good (God), the devil and human beings. I recently read James robertson’s ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’, which approaches the question from the perspective of the son of a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, who in fact takes up a ministry himself, as a non-believer. Following a number of incidents and happenings he meets up with the devil (or so he believes – is he mad after all?) and ends up believing in the devil, not in God. He also finds death, written off by the rest of the village, disappearing leaving his testament in which he records everything that happened to him, leading him to his conviction that the devil exists, however, not in the usually accepted guise! A good story and well worth reading I think.

  2. Hi Matthew, thank you for such a generous review! I am truly grateful to you for being so willing to enter into the spirit of the book. I don’t know if it’s normal for authors to comment on reviews, but I am still quite new to this game. I’m thrilled that you took a chance on my book and also took the trouble to record your impressions so articulately.

    Very best wishes,

    Roger aka RN

  3. Another one to add to my list!

  4. Interesting book. Would you recommend reading “Crime and Punishment” first, or is the background in that book not necessary to enjoy “Gentle Axe?”

  5. Roger–Thank you very much. I appreciate your comment. I’m so flattered that the author would drop by and make a comment!

    The novel has been a very rewarding reading experience, with the nuanced characterization, the many leads, and convolutions. When I found out about the release from the local paper, (SF Chronicle Book Review), I knew I had to get it and not to wait until trade paperback comes out!

    I vaguely perceive the possible significance of the names Vera and Sofiya when I dropped my suspicion again Virginsky. It’s very witty of you.

    Greg–Crime and Punishment is not a prerequisite to this novel. But being a fans and a teacher of Russian literature, I would strongly recommend you to read it. 🙂

  6. I haven’t read Crime and Punishment in years, but a novel using Porfiry certainly sparks my interest!

  7. […] a novel making use of a character from Crime and Punishment, inevitably sparks my interest. I read The Gentle Axe in a couple days during lunch between classes. Likewise, anything possessing the caliber and along […]

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