St Petersburg in 1872 and as the ice melts and spring awakens radical politics are starting to challenge the authority of the Tsar and his institutions. Pavel Pavlovich Virginski is an investigative magistrate who has sympathy with the calls for political reform, though not necessarily the appetite for revolution. As he returns home after watching a distillery burn after being attacked by arsonists he meets a man who challenges him to act on his convictions. The next morning the body of a man is found in a thawing canal. A witness to the discovery is later found dead after his apartment is set on fire, also killing the children of the family living next door. Inspector Porfiry Petrovich starts to investigate the case, along with his colleague Virginski, quickly coming to understand that it has a political dimension. Warned off the case by Section Three, the department that investigates political crimes, Petrovich and Virginski continue to pry, Virginski using his new contact from the distillery fire to infiltrate a radical political network to seek answers.
The Cleansing Flames is the fourth instalment of Morris' Inspector Porfiry Petrovich series and the first I've read. Whilst there is much to admire about Morris' writing, especially his wry observations, social and political historicisation and sense of place, for my tastes the story suffered from a weak plot, some non-credible characters, and being overly long. The plot holds much promise, centring on a political cell in Tsarist St Petersburg. However, the cell seemed so weakly organised and run, populated by a diverse range of extravert characters, that it would have been pried open within moments of its formation, let alone sustain an entire novel's attention. That might have been okay, but I just didn't believe in Virginski as a character and his actions in infiltrating the cell, nor in a number of the other minor characters. And the dreaded Section Three, which could have provided a useful foil for the investigators, disappears without a trace in the second half of the novel. The story is quite flabby in places, with extended descriptive passages, and in my view would have benefitted from losing at least fifty pages to make it tighter and tenser. What saves the book is the overall atmosphere, political intrigue, its detailing of social relations, and Morris' subtle black humour. Overall, an interesting enough read, but with a few tweaks to the plot and tightening of the narrative it could have been a really good yarn.