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Sunday, April 02, 2017

Russia's Greatest Crime Novel

by Alexei Bayer

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.

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

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.


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