RN Morris is the author of a series of crime novels set in St Petersburg and featuring the detective from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Porfiry Petrovich: A Gentle Axe (2007), A Vengeful Longing (2008) and most recently, A Razor Wrapped in Silk (2010).
Crime writer Matthew Loukes (Estrella Damn 2009 and Goose Flesh 2010) asks the questions.
ML: Reading your work, I had a strong sense of neutrality in the language – an absence of English idiom that gives the text a pronounced feeling of otherness so we know immediately that we aren’t anywhere near contemporary Britain. It’s as if we are reading a translation – something that adds to the evocative quality.
RNM: I consciously exorcised any English idiom, for the simple reason that I thought it would create the wrong associations in the reader’s mind. Sometimes, if I found I had written something that sounded too English, I would have to rework it either in a more neutral way, or in a way that seemed to me ‘Russian’. The inverted commas are very important there, of course! When I’m writing my Porfiry novels, I imagine myself writing an English translation of a Russian book that doesn’t exist. That isn’t quite right, however, because translators quite often seek to find an equivalent idiomatic phrase in the language they are translating into, so that the work feels natural to the reader. I wanted to retain the sense of the foreign and yes it did influence the way I approached the writing.
ML: Reviewers concentrate on the Dostoyevsky connection but I sensed a strong link to Conan Doyle. I’m thinking less of the obvious Porfiry versus Holmes comparison and more about the way that Doyle and you create an atmosphere that combines murky deeds, fog, carriages and that tightly buttoned world of proprieties where a man’s name carries more weight than his deeds. Do you recognise the comparison?
RNM: Atmosphere is the thing I love about Conan Doyle, the thing that remains with me, once the intricacies and convolutions of the plot are forgotten. For instance, atmosphere is so important in The Hound of the Baskervilles – Dartmoor, the marshes, the swirling mists, the legend of a supernatural dog. In fact, the atmosphere is set from the title onwards.
One of the writing techniques I use to build the atmosphere of a book is to begin from something I call a ‘visual structure’, which exists alongside the mechanics of the plot. It begins as a loose list of visual stepping stones that seem to me to be important to the story I want to tell, even though it doesn’t yet exist. These are partly objects, or props, and partly some sense of the predominant colour of certain episodes. So I will have, for example, lace, writing paper, smoke, linen in one section, and rose petals, blood, red wine, sealing wax in another. In A Gentle Axe, I had an idea of a journey from darkness to light, which corresponded to the detective’s gradual illumination as he uncovers the details of the mystery. I do have a tendency to think and write visually; that is to say, I have to see a scene before I can write it. Of course, because I am writing Victorian-era mysteries, it seems wholly appropriate to me that they should be heavily atmospheric. And it’s a kind of writing that I very much enjoy.
ML: To make a generalisation, there are perhaps two distinct readers of crime fiction: one laps up character and atmosphere while the other takes a more forensic view, carefully following plot and noting any errors of logic. Do you make an equal attempt to please both?
RNM: Well, you can’t please all the people all the time! Perhaps eccentrically, I approach crime fiction as a branch of surrealism. My lightbulb moment was when I discovered that the surrealists were into Fantômas novels and pulp literature in general. So my plots, actually, are put together with a sense of the absurd, or should I say the grotesque, although relatively few people have actually picked me up on this. I was very pleased to be described as ‘grisly’ by the New York Times. And melodramatic is another word I happily embrace. At the same time, character, humour and atmosphere are all incredibly important to me. That said, I do try to make my plots work, although I’m sure I have made lots of errors of strict logic. But logic is a very overrated virtue. Criminals do not behave logically. An understanding of human nature, of psychology, is perhaps more important to a detective than a logical facility.
I did once do a book club event where a lady who worked for the Home Office criminology database had gone through A Gentle Axe page by page writing down queries and quibbles. It was a very painful experience. And I suppose she was right, in a sense, though it did seem she had missed the spirit of the book.
ML: So how important is the idea of veracity? When you first wrote a Porfiry book you hadn’t visited St Petersburg. I’ve had readers ticking me off for getting the name of a beer wrong and for maligning the police. Writing about another country, in a different time, have you experienced these kinds of problems and, if so, did you feel the need to correct them?
RNM: Whenever I am asked a question like this I feel a little like an illusionist who is reluctant to reveal his tricks – the clue to my approach may be in my choice of analogy. As writers, we are creating an illusion, conjuring up a world. You must look your reader in the eye and write as if you know everything that can possibly be known about the universe of your novel. Of course, you can’t actually know everything. You find out as much as you can, but you have to put a limit on this research, otherwise you would never get down to writing the book. And when you’re dealing with the past, some of it is simply unknowable, which is true of the present too. But I’m writing fiction, not academic history. Veracity is important in so far as it’s necessary for creating that suspension of disbelief, and in so far as it aids the telling of the story. If you have a reader who is very knowledgeable about the period or place you’re writing about, then you have to do your best to get as much as you can right. Or to get as little as possible wrong, which is perhaps more important. But those readers are in the extreme minority. In most cases, you are dealing with people’s perceptions, or preconceptions, of a period or place. Of course, if someone points out a mistake and I’m able to correct it in future editions, then I do. I’m sure the books are littered with historical errors but I have had some good responses from Russian readers, one of whom commented on the ‘authentic St Petersburg atmosphere’. And there’s a Russian edition of A Gentle Axe. That’s something I am very proud of.
ML: Since starting these novels, how has your view of Russia changed? When I first wrote a crime novel I didn’t give much thought to it displaying a particular attitude to the location of the action (London) but on reading the books back I can see the city imposing itself on the characters, the action and even the author. Did you get a similar feeling for Russia, and for St Petersburg in particular?
RNM: When I started writing the first novel, I knew very little about Russia. I think I had this idea of Russians as being angst-ridden and preoccupied by their souls. Inevitably, I know more about Russia now than I did then. I have actually visited St Petersburg and I’ve met Russians, and I must say I found them extraordinarily welcoming and helpful and friendly. And only a little bit angst-ridden and preoccupied by their souls!
Regarding the concept of place, I know it’s quite common for writers to talk about a location becoming a character in its own right but I think that is something that has happened in my books without me consciously intending it. Of course, the St Petersburg in my books is an imaginary place, based on my unavoidably partial understanding of a St Petersburg that existed 150 or so years ago. It may overlap with the real St Petersburg of that period, and even with the present-day St Petersburg. When I visited the city I was certainly aware of this overlap and the experience for me was very intense, as if I were walking though a city I had dreamed up.
ML: There’s a strong political aspect to A Razor Wrapped in Silk with tensions between the establishment and influences that threaten it: democracy, the as-yet spectral communist threat, workers rights, women’s emancipation and overlaying all of that, the persistent, pernicious background of anti-Semitism. How do you react to the idea that Porfiry could be seen as an agent of political change (despite his conservative tendencies)?
RNM: Certainly it was my intention to show Porfiry as a decent man in the service of an unjust regime, and to explore the tensions and contradictions that arise from that. Under the Tsarist regime there was no public political life as we understand it. Lawyers such as Porfiry, who is an investigating magistrate, were part of the educated élite. They were often politically liberal, even radical. Even the Tsar at the time, Alexander II, saw that social and political change was necessary. He sought to manage it by bringing in a series of reforms in the 1860s, a kind of revolution from above. Apart from abolishing serfdom, his key reforms involved the law courts and the legal process. Juries were introduced for the first time. The law courts then became a focus for political debate and activity, and a kind of crucible for change, with many of the hot issues played out in front of juries. It must have felt as though the state and its ministers were on trial. There were some extraordinary verdicts delivered by these early juries, which caused a great deal of controversy in the conservative press.
As a magistrate, Porfiry would, I think, have been very much aware of these currents of change. At the same time, I have given him certain conservative tendencies, but essentially I wanted him to be a good, decent man. He’s trying to steer a way through the impending turmoil, I think; trying to find the middle way. If you’re surrounded by institutional injustice, and all you have to guide you is basic human decency, inevitably you’re going to be drawn towards the idea of change. Of course, basic human decency isn’t all Porfiry has – he also has cunning and psychological insight, and in my version of the character, religious faith.
ML: RN Morris, thank you very much indeed.