Wednesday, December 12, 2007


(Editor’s note: It’s been a while since we last heard from British novelist R.N. “Roger” Morris, so we’re happy to have him writing here today about the fear and opportunities surrounding his creation of a detective series. Welcome back, Roger.)

This was the idea: to write a detective novel featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. You’ll note the singular article. A detective novel. Just the one. A neat, one-off, self-contained bit of literary cheek.

But then my agent said to me, “You know, sometimes publishers like it if you can offer a series. It might help if you had a number of storylines up your sleeve.”

So while I was getting on with the first one, I worked out three other synopses, making a nice quartet of Porfiry books. One for each season of the year. There’s that saying, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” Though another saying, something about being hung for a sheep, also came to mind.

I drew up these synopses in the same spirit that you might jot down a list of Hollywood actresses you’d be prepared to sleep with. The it’s-never-going-to-happen-so-what’s-the-harm spirit.

A bit of personal context. At the time, I was an unpublished novelist. That’s putting it mildly. I had several crates full of declined manuscripts and a drawer that wouldn’t close because of all the rejection slips that came with them. The idea of anybody ever publishing a book of mine was beginning to look delusional. That I might get a series commissioned was beyond absurd. Hence, a certain recklessness had crept into my quest to get published. That explains my Porfiry idea in the first place, I suppose. Planning a series was just taking it to its logical, hubristic conclusion.

Eventually, the original book was written and found its way into an editorial meeting at Faber and Faber. The feedback was that they liked it. Liked it so much, they wanted to know if I would be interested in writing a series. It seemed that they would only make an offer if there was the chance of a series to follow. I went in for a meeting with the commissioning editor, the extra synopses clutched in my shaking hands. My hands were shaking because this was Faber and Faber. You know, the Faber and Faber. They publish proper writers there. Plus, there was a real chance that this guy might call my bluff on the whole series thing. Who wouldn’t be scared?

I knew from experience that writing one novel set in 19th-century St. Petersburg, Russia, with a character purloined from one of the masterpieces of world literature, was hard enough. The prospect of having to come up with a whole slew of them was positively terrifying. The storylines were sketched out. But the detail, the texture, the spirit, sense, stench of the period, the very things that historical fiction relies on, these were yet to be mined. What stocks I possessed had been used up in the book I’d just written.

One thing I was very concerned about was the real danger of repeating myself. As a writer, I have never been interested in writing the same book twice. To keep the endeavor interesting and challenging for myself, I always have to be moving forward, trying out new things, taking risks.

Of course, a certain amount of repetition is unavoidable when you take characters over from one novel to another, and then to another and another. The characters have to have some consistency from one book to the next. But for me they need to develop too. The relationships need to change. The characters will age. They will gain experience, and baggage. But this presents a problem too. How do you manage that when there may well be readers coming into the series at the second book, or even later?

My own feeling is that each book has to stand on its own. Every novel ever written has an unwritten prequel; every fictional character has a back story that is hinted at, that influences the way he or she acts, but that is not necessarily explicitly told in the narrative itself. It’s material that the author holds in reserve, that may power the story being told, or simply cast a shadow over it. The difference with a novel that comes at a certain point in a series is that this back story may have been available to the reader in an earlier book.

I believe I was also influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by Dostoevsky’s approach to character. Whatever biographical exposition he provides for his characters, which can often be sparing, there is always the sense for the reader of encountering dynamic personalities in the moment, and having to form one’s impressions of that character on the hoof, so to speak. And every character is to some extent a mystery to be unraveled. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Idiot, “But every soul is a mystery, and depths of mystery lie in the soul of a Russian.”

Dostoevsky also came to my aid in developing the storylines. It was always my intention to create stories that came out of the specific period and milieu. What I didn’t want to do was to create generic murder stories that I imposed on a 19th-century Russian setting. Where better to look for my inspiration than to the novels of Dostoevsky himself?

This inspiration is at times indirect, and concealed, but there is no doubt that both of the books I have written, and both of the books I have yet to write, have as their source a specific novel by Dostoevsky. A/The Gentle Axe owes its existence to Crime and Punishment. A Vengeful Longing, due out in the UK in February 2008 (with U.S. publication to follow in June), is influenced by Notes from Underground. The book after that, which I can reveal will be called A Razor Wrapped in Silk (as yet unwritten, but I’m working on it!) draws heavily on The Idiot. The final book in my intended quartet will be inspired by The Devils (aka The Possessed).

There is a chronological progression to the novels too. Not only does that age the central characters, it changes the historical context. Each book takes us closer to the coming ferment of revolution and the eventual end of the tsarist regime. This theme of decline will have its most explicit working-out in the final book.

The idea of setting each story in a different season, which I touched upon above, was intended to help me make successive books distinct in feel and atmosphere. Gentle Axe is set in the midst of a Russian winter. A Vengeful Longing takes place in a dusty St. Petersburg summer. A Razor Wrapped in Silk will be set in a damp, foggy autumn. In the final book, the springtime setting, with the ice thawing in the Neva River, symbolizes renewal, which is violently and dangerously enacted by the proto-revolutionaries of that time.

So that was my plan. I find myself now at the halfway point. Two written. Two to go. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to write--and publish--all four. After that, who knows?


Vanessa G said...

Hello Rpger...

It is a wonderful thing, the brain. It protects us by telling us that things are impossible and ot to try them, in case we fail and feel crushed.

And then it stores up information and releases it in manageable chucks... it sounds utterly brilliant, this series, and if they are as spellbinding as Gentle Axe, I will fill my shelves with them!

All power to you.


Nik's Blog said...

Very interesting, Roger. And all sounding good. Keep up the great work!


Don Capone said...

I like the idea of one book for each season. (Does Russia have seasons though? I thought it was just winter and not winter.) One thing you didn't mention—Hollywood loves series, too!

Can't wait to read A Vengeful Longing!

Simonovotch said...

Reading this makes me want to read the entire series and I am waiting for the book influenced but the Eternal Husband a book I re-read in a single day last year while travelling.
Series always work well in Detective novels!


Sarah said...

I am really looking forward to 'A Vengeful Longing'.

Are we looking at 'The St Petersburg Quartet'?

Love the idea of the seasons and the progress towards the revolution.

The idea of every novel having an unwritten prequel really resonates with me at the moment - thank you for that!


Emma Darwin said...

That's fascinating, Roger, thank you. I think most writers have a sense that the story exists as a continuum, from which we chose to write a particular extract. I've always loved the ways good detective series develop their characters, while, as you say, the individual books stand on their own.

I've been asked more than once if I'd ever write a sequal to The Mathematics of Love, and never felt any real desire to, but now you've got me thinking...