THE CLEANSING FLAMES
Written by R.N. Morris
Review written by Carole Tyrell
Carole Tyrrell worked in the theatre for nearly 10 years and was always fascinating by the way death and the supernatural formed many of the greatest and most enduring works. She has read crime fiction for many years and enjoys the broad range of the genre.
Faber & Faber
Released: 19th May 2011
The Cleansing Flames begins, appropriately enough, with a fire on Easter Sunday in 1872 and is the fourth in the St Petersburg series. As junior magistrate, Pavel Virginsky watches, a hatchet faced man approaches him and hands him a printed poem against God before vanishing.
This act sets off a chain of events for the dissatisfied Virginsky which lead him towards a group of revolutionaries and a desperate act. On the same night a journalist, Damya Kozodavlev, is passing by the slowly melting Winter Canal as 5 sailors dive in for a swim. But six people come out of the water and one of them is a corpse. He has a familiar face which Kozodavlev knows too well and he's glad to escape the scene on the pretext of calling the police. Instead he vanishes into the night only to die in another fire at his home which also kills 5 children.
The novel features the investigator from Dosteyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Porfiry Petrovich, and his subordinate, Virginsky. I thought it was a very interesting idea to take a character from such a classic as Crime and Punishment and create another life for him. Raskolnikov also makes a fleeting appearance. Petrovich is in charge of discovering the identity of the man in the Canal and why Kozodavlev died. The trail leads him to suppressed magazines staffed by earnest dissidents, eager for change, a vanished reporter and a printer whose ownership of a printing press cost him his life. He has an encounter with the police thug, Salytov, who carries off a suspect from under Petrovich's nose.
However, the latter is unaware that Virginsky is courting dangerous friends. The younger man is drawn like a moth to the flame to them especially a woman, Tatyana Ruslanovna. When he meets the hatchet faced man again, by chance, he reveals his job and suggests that he might be useful to their cause by providing information. But they want a sacrifice to prove his allegiance and he can't back out now.....
The theme of fire runs through the narrative; the many blazes in the city and the slower burning flames of a coming storm that will engulf the old order. However, this isn't a novel for readers who want a fast paced thriller as it unfolds at its own pace using its historical backdrop well. The Romanovs are in power but religion, and its rituals especially Easter, are beginning to be viewed as tools of oppression with rumours of desecrated churches.
The central relationship, almost father and son, between Virginsky and Petrovich is well drawn as is the bureaucracy of the Russian Civil Service. For example, the mistake of submitting the wrong colour of official chit leads to a crucial error on the poster appealing for information about the dead man from the Winter Canal. When Petrovich is denied access to a suppressed publication the young librarian quietly accepts a bribe and enables access by another route he thinks to himself that the young man will go far.
This is an ambitious novel set in an interesting and exciting historical period with enough plot twists to keep the plot moving. I found the ending a little predictable but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book.