I don’t know much about Russian history. I know that there was a revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century where the Tzar and ruling classes were overthrown; I’d heard about the whole Anastasia thing and I knew that Russians were always the baddies in the best James Bond films. I have never read Crime and Punishment either so it was with some trepidation that I began to read R.N.Morris’s The Cleansing Flames where he takes Dostoevsky’s character, Magistrate Porfiry Petrovich and follows him and his underling, Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky as they navigate the officialdom and revolutionaries in Russia of 1872.
And it was a revelation.
Morris’s opening chapter is beautifully written and he describes a vodka warehouse fire with such detail I could almost feel the heat. I particularly loved that Virginsky ‘could hear its savage, drunken roar’. But this is not a book where language is used at the expense of character or plot.
Virginsky is a man torn by his growing support for the revolutionary cause and his work as a magistrate. There is also a hint that he may suffer from some form of OCD as he has a habit of counting things in times of stress. He has an uneasy relationship with Porfiry Petrovich at the beginning but this develops and changes over the course of the book.
The Senior Magistrate is drawn almost like a Russian Poirot,all tics and artifice hiding a sharp intelligence and warm nature and he manages to navigate the corridors and red-tape of officialdom with cunning and good humour.
And so to the plot. When a body is discovered in the thawing Winter Canal and an anonymous tip off is received by Porfiry Petrovich, both men are drawn into the world of intellectual terrorists whose aim is to overthrow the aristocracy and bring all down to the level of the Russian peasant. Virginsky infiltrates one such terrorist group and Morris very skillfully shows his character’s internal struggle with both sides of his personality. These terrorists all have other, code names in addition to their own and the chief of these is Dyavol – Devil – whose identity is unknown to only a few at the very top of the cell. The terrorists use disinformation to manipulate Virginsky and it is not until almost the end of the book that we discover which side the junior magistrate will embrace.
This is Virginsky’s book, despite it being the fourth Porfiry Petrovich novel. In many ways the older man plays a supporting role to his young colleague but the story does not suffer because of this. The only criticism I have of the book it that I found the Russian names difficult to remember and it took me a little while to get used to the Russian naming convention – Pavel Pavlovich and Virginsky being the same person, for example. But that is down to reading the book in many short bursts rather than a few longer sesions.
All in all I found the book a highly enjoyable read and will definitely read more by this author. if you like historical fiction, especially historical crime fiction, I’d highly recommend giving R.N.Morris a try.