Tuesday 30 November 2010

Pending...and 'A Razor Wrapped in Silk', by R N Morris

Pending…. (there is some very nice novel-type news on the horizon, of which more when things are finalised…)
But what do you do when you have finished something that took you years to write, when that has been read and loved by more than one great publisher, and you are buzzing about publicising your just-out second short story collection?

One, you get off the planet for a break. I am at Anam Cara, the best place in the world, my writers’ retreat in Ireland. With two great friends also here, who could ask for more.
Two, you also start feeding the empty well, filling up those spaces that feel so raw, after scouring everywhere you can think of inside yourself, to write as well as you can for such a long time.
First task then, was to find a novel to read. I am always reading short fiction, and love it – I wanted a single something to sustain me for longer…Oh there are lots out there, but this had to be something different. I needed the equivalent of a gym workout on my creative places. Then I read a post on facebook, from facebook friend Roger Morris. That's him up there... He is the author of three historical crime novels – and he was asking if anyone would like to read to review on their blogs… perfect.
Now – I don’t read historical fiction. I actually don’t go for it, because much of what I have read is so stuffed with unnecessary research details that these completely cloud the story.
So I was deliberately taking myself out of a comfort zone, and Roger’s novel, “A Razor Wrapped In Silk” which was kindly sent to me by someone at the publishers, Faber, would have to work quite hard to make this Doubting Thomas sink into it.

We are in St Petersburg, mid 19th century. The novel starts in a horrific cotton-mill, in which looming machines clank and roar, and young children are ‘employed’ to work inside the guts of the machines, mending broken threads. We meet a young lad, looking forward to his one joy in life – his after-work school hour, making his way through the misty streets. And he never gets there….
We are then transported to St Petersburg society – a palace, opulent in the extreme, where very different people are celebrating, at a private theatre. The chill and darkness of the fist scenes are beautifully contrasted in the colours and richness of this second…and the blood on the carpet is rich and dark… Unlikely as it may seem, the events that play out at these two very different places will come together as this novel unfolds.

The book’s synopsis is this: (taken from Faber’s webpage, link below)
St. Petersburg. 1870. A child factory worker is mysteriously abducted. A society beauty is sensationally murdered. Two very different crimes show up the deep fissures in Russian society during the late tsarist period. The first is barely noticed by the authorities. The latter draws the full investigative might of St Petersburg's finest, led by magistrate Porfiry Petrovich. 

The dead woman had powerful friends - including at least one member of the Romanov family - so when the tsar’s notorious secret police become involved, it seems that both crimes may have a political - not to say revolutionary - aspect, which takes Porfiry inside the Winter Palace for a confrontation with the Tsar himself. 

The usually incisive magistrate grows increasingly unsure what to believe, who to trust and how to proceed. His very life appears to be in danger, though from whom he can't be sure.

Porfiry Petrovich is a magistrate, inspired by the character of the same name in Dostoyevsky.
I have not read the Dostoyevsky (sorry…) but in Morris’s capable hands he is a richly layered and complex individual, just as this is a richly layered and complex novel, without ever tipping into the self-aware morass of extraneous detail that seems to weigh down other historical fiction that has had the misfortune to be read by me.
I’m not going to give you any plot spoilers. Suffice it to say that I almost missed a train stop thanks to this book.
St Petersburg is a gorgeous place, and a glossy one hiding a dark underbelly, seems to me – I’ve spent a little time there, and know it has many different faces, even now. Morris conjures the city as it surely must have been well over a hundred years ago. He conjures it at a fascinating time, politically, and weaves a complex crime scenario into the tapestry of mist-wrapped streets and gilded palaces.
Having admitted I HATE extraneous material, I was on the lookout. I was watching for anything that held up the story, that didn’t ring right, that wasn’t organic. And after a few pages, I forgot to watch for any of that because it just aint there.
Morris writes fabulously well. The narrative voice is cleverly pitched to evoke a different era – but only just – at no time did I have to make an obvious effort, and it added to the seduction of this reader into another world. And what I wasn’t expecting, was the humour. In places, even though this has very dark shadows, I laughed out loud. It’s a joy to read.
My goodness, I’m glad I answered that facebook post.

The books webpage on Faber’s website is here: http://www.faber.co.uk/work/razor-wrapped-in-silk/9780571241156/


  1. I've only read "Poor People" but C&P is up on the shelf there waiting for me and I'll have to get this book to go with it now.

    Best with your retreat.

  2. I can't wait for the novel news! I do envy you being in Ireland. Have fun, stay warm and let us know as soon as possible your lovely news. x

  3. Sounds really good, and I'm a sucker for good historical fiction. Thanks for the review.