Archive for November 5, 2011

St Petersburg, Russia April 1872

While magistrate Virginsky watches a spectacular fire set by arsonists a man whose face resembled a bespectacled axe head gives him a manifesto to read.  He sees a kindred spirit in the young magistrate, a potential recruit for the revolutionary cause.

The ice on the Winter Canal is thawing and as young sailors plunge into the water they find a body  dumped into the canal before the water froze over. The sailors call on Kozodavlev standing on the bridge to call the police or the City Guard. But Kozodavlev runs away and before he can be tracked down by the investigating magistrates Porfiry Petrovich and Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky his apartment is destroyed by a fire and the body of an adult male is found in the wreckage with six young children dead in the neighbours apartment. 

As Porfiry and Virginsky pursue their case Pavel Pavlovich is tempted  to infiltrate, or perhaps even join, the revolutionary cell responsible for printing political manifestos, arson and murder. 

With a large cast of memorable characters, such as the frighteningly disfigured brutal policeman Salytov, the dissolute aristocrat Prince Dolgoruky, and the “new woman” Tatyana Ruslanovna there is always plenty to keep the reader interested in and concentrating on the action.

I am very pleased that the The Cleansing Flames has been shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters, because there are very few authors who can blend accounts of horrendous crimes with entertaining humour.

Roger Morris achieves this while exposing both the stupidity and bureaucratic incompetence at the heart of Tsarist Russia, and the naivety of the revolutionaries:

‘You are aware,’ began the younger librarian, who was evidently more senior in rank,’that one of the titles you have requested is a restricted publication.’ 

‘ I was not aware of that. I was not even aware that there is a list of restricted publications.’

‘That is hardly surprising. The list itself is restricted.’

The story emphasizes the historical fact that revolutions are usually made by  the middle class professionals, writers, poets, and professors, who don’t have a clue as to what they are unleashing. 

‘There are some men who are, undoubtedly, motivated by a universal love of mankind.’ Porfiry leant back in his chair as he warmed to his theme. ‘But they find that the mankind they love does not correspond exactly to the sordid, ungrateful, greedy men and women they see around them.’ 

The Cleansing Flames with a combination of meticulous research, an interesting plot, an intelligent thought provoking narrative, and dialogue that fits the time and place is an excellent but not particularly  fast read. But it is well worth taking the time to get immersed in the story, and look out for the hilarious incident towards the end of the book that reminded me of a scene in Where Eagles Dare with Richard Burton.