is one of those books. It has a unique power. The idea of it compels you even
before you’ve read it. The stature of it too: it’s a masterpiece of world
literature, a towering work that casts a long shadow. I remember how, as a
precocious teenager who wanted to be a writer, I was drawn to it and scared of
it at the same time. Dare I read it? Would I understand it? Would it disappoint
me? Or – more likely - would it be so mind-blowingly brilliant that I would
abandon all my own literary ambitions, realising that there was nothing more to
be said, and no way left to say it?
I should point
out this was in the seventies. And one of the reasons I was so drawn to the book
was that I’d heard that Columbo was based in some way on Porfiry Petrovich, the
detective from Crime and Punishment. I was a big fan of Columbo (as I was
of Kojak, and Ironside, and TV detective series in general). Given the kind of
kid I was, I was also attracted by the idea of genius, by profound mysteries –
by the promise of Russian literature in other words, even though I was frankly
daunted by the prospect of tackling one of those big heavy books for real.
But here was a
Russian book that was also a murder story; a philosophical novel that was also
gory and gripping. There was an axe-murderer in it, for God’s sake! And a
detective too. It seemed perfect, the perfect bridge from the Conan Doyle
stories that I was lapping up to something more, well, ‘serious’.
At any rate,
the idea of the book took hold of me and wouldn’t let me go. A little like
Raskolnikov’s ‘idea’ in the book itself.
I seem to
remember that the blurb on the back of the Penguin Classics edition of the time,
which I must have borrowed from my school library, billed it as one of the
world’s first detective novels. If so, this is slightly misleading. Although one
of the characters is a detective, he is not the central character. In fact,
Porfiry does not come on the scene until nearly half way through the book. He is
directly present, I think, in just three chapters of the book. However, the
idea of him is – masterfully - introduced before his entrance, and his
dominating presence continues to be felt after he has left the stage.
Crime and Punishment is not so much a ‘detective story’ as a ‘murderer
story’, the murderer being Raskolnikov. I suppose my idea, really, was simply to
switch things round and attempt to write the kind of detective story that the
blurb had promised, but which Crime and Punishment so evidently is not - being,
in fact, so much more. (I should say that A Gentle Axe is not a retelling of
Crime and Punishment. It’s a different case altogether, taking place some
time afterwards.) I’m fully aware of the monstrous effrontery of this conceit.
That’s partly what appealed to me, I have to confess. But I hope people will
realise the essential playfulness of my idea.
This idea - of
writing a sleuthing yarn starring Porfiry Petrovich - came to me after
re-reading the book many years later, in my thirties. I remembered my youthful
expectations of the book, and how it had turned out to be something else
entirely. I thought it would be a good idea for someone to do. Like most
writers, I imagine, I tend to have a lot of ideas for books, most of which I
never get round to doing anything about. Either because I discover someone else
already has, or I decide that it would be just too hard to pull off. I felt this
one probably fell into both camps: someone else must surely have done it – it
seemed such an obvious idea. And I had no idea how I would go about it. For one
thing, I didn’t know if I could write a crime novel; I certainly didn’t assume I
could. And I knew nothing about nineteenth century St Petersburg. Hardly the
best qualifications for the job.
But, whether I
liked it or not, here was another idea that wouldn’t let go of me. I began to
think there was something in it. I re-read Crime and Punishment again. I
tried to find out if it had been done already, and as far as I knew, it hadn’t.
I discussed it with my agent. ‘Yes, that could work,’ he said. That was all the
green light I needed.
went back to the original novel for clues in constructing my own Porfiry
Petrovich. Clues like this description from Raskolnikov’s friend Razumikhin, who
is a distant relative of Porfiry’s: ‘He’s a splendid chap, brother, you will
see! He’s a little awkward. I don’t mean that he’s not well-bred; when I say
that he is awkward I mean it in another respect. He is an intelligent fellow,
very intelligent, he’s nobody’s fool, but he is of a rather peculiar turn of
mind… He is incredulous, sceptical, cynical. He likes to mislead people, or
rather to baffle them… Well, it’s an old and well-tried method… He knows his
business, knows it very well… Last year he investigated and solved a case,
another murder, where the scent was practically cold. He is very, very anxious
to make your acquaintance!’
quite often gives us such brief descriptions of characters who then turn out to
be far more complex and elusive when we encounter them in the course of the
story. Just like people in real life, you might say. Whatever one character says
of another, in the end we form our own impressions, which are quite often
difficult to pin down.
and Punishment, Dostoevsky is sometimes credited with inventing what we
might call the ‘limited third person point of view’. In fact, he began writing
the novel in the first person, but instinctively realised that would not give
him the freedom to tell Raskolnikov’s story as he wanted to. In typical style,
he burnt that draft and began again in the third person. He needed to stay as
close to Raskolnikov as possible, but also to be able to stand outside the
character when necessary. It was a significant move away from the traditional
‘omniscient author’ approach and, I think, one of the things that make the book
feel so modern. He does stick pretty rigorously to Raskolnikov’s feverish and
vacillating point of view throughout the main part of the book, only
occasionally committing misdemeanours of ‘head-hopping’ that modern day P.O.V.
police would no doubt pull him up on. The point I want to make is that when we
first encounter Porfiry, we view the scene, and form our impressions of the
detective, from Raskolnikov’s point of view. In fact, our whole idea of Porfiry
in the book is Raskolnikov’s idea of him. He exists as Raskolnikov’s nemesis. He
is a mysterious force, there is something almost devilish – Mephistophelean
perhaps – about him. He plays with Raskolnikov, but he understands him totally,
and he is convinced from the outset that Raskolnikov has committed the crime.
Certainly, Raskolnikov’s paranoia credits Porfiry with this.
interesting, writing a novel with Porfiry Petrovich as hero, is the clash
between other people’s perceptions of him and his own ‘self-creation’, which I
feel is governed by his professional role. That is to say he engineers and
manipulates the impression he makes on the suspects and witnesses he interviews
in order to extract information from them. I think it’s fair to say that I
allowed myself some latitude in this. Also, in Crime and Punishment we
are never afforded the privilege of seeing things from Porfiry’s point of view.
Like Raskolnikov, we must try to work out what he is thinking by what he says
and what he does. And I don’t think we can always trust what Porfiry says,
either in Crime and Punishment or in my book. However, I do write at
times from Porfiry’s point of view. I suppose imagining his internal perspective
was the biggest leap, and liberty, that I took. And it is in this switch that I
have had to create my own Porfiry Petrovich. It also brought up certain
challenges, which I think are common to a lot of detective fiction. How to
explore and reveal the character’s humanity, without giving away the solution of
To return to
Crime and Punishment, by the time murderer and detective meet, the sense
of anticipation is enormous. Raskolnikov is going there in an attempt to take
the initiative, but also because he wants to get a look at his adversary – and
we, as readers, are impatient to meet Porfiry too. Razumikhin has taken
Raskolnikov’s to the magistrate’s private apartment, not his office. It’s here
that the first physical description occurs, which was very important to me, so
I’ll quote it at length: ‘He was a man of about thirty-five, rather short and
stout, and somewhat paunchy. He was clean-shaven, and the hair was cropped close
on his large round head, which bulged out at the back almost as if it were
swollen. His fat, round, rather snub-nosed, dark-skinned face had an unhealthy
yellowish pallor, and a cheerful, slightly mocking expression. It would have
seemed good-natured were it not for the expression of his eyes, which had a
watery, glassy gleam under the lids with nearly white eyelashes, which twitched
almost as though he were continually winking. The glance of those eyes was
strangely out of keeping with his squat figure, almost like a peasant woman’s,
and made him seem more to be reckoned with than might have been imagined at
not dealing with a dashing, handsome detective type, but nonetheless a
formidable and fascinating character. Those eyes – and the eyelashes – drew me
to him. A little later, Porfiry is represented as something of a prankster too.
Razumikhin says of him: ‘Last year, for some reason, he assured us he was going
into a monastery: he persisted in it for two months! Not long ago he took it
into his head to announce that he was getting married, and that everything was
ready for the wedding. He even got new clothes, and we were all congratulating
him. He hadn’t got a fiancée or anything else; it was all a fraud!’
I have to say
I found all this very suggestive. It was like a door opening, through which I
could glimpse, or perhaps spy on, a very interesting personality indeed,
mischievous, strange, humorous, perverse even, and not wholly trustworthy. How
this informed the character I created, I can’t really say, as I am very much an
instinctive writer. All I know is that it did.
dialogue scenes in which Porfiry interviews Raskolnikov – or rather in which
their intellectual and moral duels are played out – are of course brilliant, and
it is here that we see the great investigator at work. Also brilliant is the way
that Raskolnikov’s fascination with, and almost need for, his adversary grows
throughout the book. Each respects the other. If Porfiry tries to play his
‘magistrate’s games’, Raskolnikov sees right through him. So Porfiry has to be
on his toes, flexible and wily. He does his research too, getting hold of and
reading an article that Raskolnikov had written. Again, this was a detail that
made an impression on me, which I took hold of and ran with, if you like.
though, my method was to encounter and enjoy Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and
Punishment. And then write my own story, re-inventing the character for my
own very different purposes. I hope Dostoevsky, wherever he is, is looking on
with an amused and indulgent eye.
A Gentle Axe, Faber&Faber paperback Feb. 2007 £12.99