April 02, 2017

Russia's Greatest Crime Novel


Russia's Greatest Crime Novel
One of Fritz Eichenberg's beautiful 1938 woodcut illustrations for Crime and Punishment.

When you set out to write a murder mystery in Russian – or even in another language, but set in Russia – you should be mindful that you are following in the footsteps the greatest Russian crime fiction writer of all times, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Surely his Crime and Punishment is a crime novel – crime, after all, is part of its title and it is about a murder – but there may be some doubt as to whether it is a mystery. Of course, it isn't a conventional English whodunit or an American hard-boiled one, but it is a murder mystery nonetheless.

The conventional murder mystery is a product of the Enlightenment. It presents society as a rational structure, in which crime is an aberration. When solving a crime, the detective engages his brain-power and employs the scientific method. Cause and effect are inexorably linked: the detective reverse-engineers the chain of events, getting from the murder to its cause.

The first murder mystery was The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a novella by Edgar Allan Poe. The rational, deductive method is illustrated, and the detective traces his companion’s chain of reasoning and responds to his inner train of in thought.

The plot is all about civilized society. In the end, it turns out that the brutal murder on Rue Morgue was committed by an ape. But a human solves the murder, returns the ape to the zoo, and re-establishes societal norms.

Crime and Punishment is a repudiation of this kind of Enlightenment crime novel. It appeared 20 years before the first Sherlock Holmes story, but also more than 20 years after Poe’s Rue Morgue. Western rationality was already part of the discourse in Russia, and Russian writers were quite obsessed with it. Note that both Crime and Punishment and Toltroy’s War and Peace, published three years apart, make references to Napoleon, who by that time had been dead for nearly half a century. Both authors still saw Napoleon as a sort of symbolic Westerner: rational, active, autonomous.

Let’s briefly summarize Dostoyevsky’s novel.

Rodion Raskolnikov, a destitute student, wants to put himself to the test, to see whether he is, as he believes, an extraordinary human being. He decides to kill and rob an old money lender whose life he deems to be useless. He believes that a superior being ought to be able to commit such crime and have no remorse – to go on to accomplish great deeds. He murders the money lender, but also has to kill her kind and pious sister.

From the start, we know the identity of the murderer and follow the investigation, which is presented as a cat-and-mouse game conducted by the detective, Porfiry Petrovich. The mystery is whether Raskolnikov will get away with his crime, and whether his philosophy will be vindicated. These are two connected developments.

Raskolnikov fails his own test: he can avoid neither remorse nor fear of being caught. Having imagined himself as a kind of Napoleon, he becomes a pariah. He breaks off his ties of friendship and family and later, in the epilogue, is shown to be disliked even by his other inmates.

Unlike the English detective novel, here murder is not a break in the man-made rational order, but a crime against higher authority. Russian society in Dostoevsky is neither rational nor just, but it is highly moral: once you become an individualist, a rational being pursuing money or self-interest, you are lost. In fact, the worst villain in the tale is Arkady Svidrigailov – the most rational, logical and modern character in the novel. He becomes a complete outcast and ends up committing suicide. 

Importantly, the detective does not use any sort of scientific method, nor does he bragging about his grey cells. What he does is intuit Raskolnikov’s guilt. And the story of his detection is not about him collecting clues and putting them together, but about leading a troubled man to confession.

Crime and Punishment, like so much of Russian writing before the final years of the nineteenth century, is a morality tale. But morality is a major component of crime fiction, especially in the American, hard-boiled novel. As Carroll John Daly, the author of the first hard-boiled short story, puts it, in the words of his detective Race Williams, “My morality is my own.”

The best American hard-boiled authors, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, paint a picture of society that is depraved and immoral. Their detectives must abide by its rules, but unlike everyone else, they know its true worth.

American characters are individualistic and stand firmly on their two feet. Their morality stems from their ability and willingness to act, and to act independently. To remain moral beings they have to make a clean break from society. In Dostoyevsky, however, the desire and ability to act independently is evil in itself. Raskolnikov is a murder waiting to happen. He might recoil from murdering this money lender, but having conceived the notion, he will be driven to test it.

There is a Biblical proverb that is common in Russia: “No man is a prophet in his native land.” Thus, the person who may understand Dostoyevsky best is an American, the filmmaker Woody Allen. The form pioneered by Dostoyevsky is unlike a more conventional whodunit, and so it has not had too many imitators. Yet Allen’s best films are Dostoyevskian tales of crime and punishment, from the pointedly titled Crimes and Misdemeanors to the rather significantly titled Irrational Man.


ALEXEI BAYER is a New York-based author and translator. He writes in English and in Russian, his native tongue, and translates into both languages. His translations have appeared in Chtenia and Words Without Borders, as well as in such collections as The Wall in My Head, and Life Stories. His three mystery novels, Murder at the Dacha, The Latchkey Murders, and Murder and the Muse are published by Russian Life Books.

 

You Might Also Like

Murder and the Muse
  • December 12, 2016

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Murder and the Muse

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
Turgenev Bilingual

Turgenev Bilingual

A sampling of Ivan Turgenev's masterful short stories, plays, novellas and novels. Bilingual, with English and accented Russian texts running side by side on adjoining pages.
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Bilingual series of short, lesser known, but highly significant works that show the traditional view of Dostoyevsky as a dour, intense, philosophical writer to be unnecessarily one-sided. 
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
Chekhov Bilingual

Chekhov Bilingual

Some of Chekhov's most beloved stories, with English and accented Russian on facing pages throughout. 

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955