“Can you make anyone confess to anything?” – Captain Mizinchikov
Given his long and illustrious track record of solving even the most baffling of cases, said question is a fair one to be posed to Investigating Magistrate Porfiry Petrovich. Yet, A Razor Wrapped in Silk, the third outing for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous investigator under the skillful hand of author R.N. Morris, finds Porfiry Petrovich challenged with solving two seemingly unrelated cases and, for the first time, beginning to question his skills as an investigator.
The intrigue begins when Petrovich is approached with a request from a privileged young woman to investigate the disappearance of several children. Barely more than indentured servants working long hours in a factory under horrendous conditions, disposable in the eyes of society at large, their absence was noticed by the young woman when the children stopped showing up for lessons at her free school.
Petrovich agrees to look into the matter, but when another young woman from the world of the aristocracy is murdered shortly thereafter while attending a play the full resources of the police force are brought to bear on that case, and the missing children investigation falls by the wayside.
As his investigation of the society murder progresses Petrovich begins to see connections between it and the missing children, connections that bring Petrovich into conflict with both the disdainful aristocracy and the distrustful revolutionaries, and which ultimately set Petrovich on a collision course with the Tsar himself.
The investigations make for a great detective story in and of themselves but, as with the previous two entries in the series, where A Razor Wrapped in Silk truly shines is in author R.N. Morris’ exquisite portrayal of both time and place. Set in 1870 Saint Petersburg, Russia, A Razor Wrapped in Silk gives readers a fascinating look at the very disparate living conditions and opportunities that existed during a time when a society and nation were on the verge of historic upheaval, and where one’s position in the socioeconomic hierarchy greatly affected not only how you were treated in life, but also in death.
From the grim conditions in the factories just taking hold to the opulence of The Winter Palace, Morris masterfully brings Saint Petersburg and its inhabitants to life. Every detail rings true, every character a perfect reflection of their position in a society clearly divided between the haves and have-nots, with the wonderfully single-minded and eccentric Porfiry Petrovich acting as a bridge between the two worlds.
If you are a fan of Crime and Punishment I strongly urge you to jump into this series (you don’t have to start at the beginning). Interestingly, if you despise Crime and Punishment – or couldn’t even get through it at gunpoint in high school – I actually encourage you even more to try this series. While he’s borrowed Porfiry Petrovich from Dostoevsky, Morris has put his own stamp on the character. It’s a subtle one, but made a crucial difference to me as someone who was, at best, indifferent on Crime and Punishment before discovering Morris’ fresh take on the character.
So go ahead, take a trip to Russia. Not only is there a great series waiting for you, but you may (re)discover an appreciation for one of the all time classic works of literature in the process.
A Razor Wrapped in Silk is available from Faber and Faber (ISBN: 978-0571241156).