Dostoevsky and Detective Fiction: An Interview with Claire Whitehead

Today we’re sitting down with Claire Whitehead to talk about Dostoevsky, crime fiction, and her new book, The Poetics of Early Russian Crime Fiction, 1860-1917: Deciphering Stories of Detection, published in September by Legenda.

BK: So, first, tell us a little about your new book. What is it about?

M-lgs-p771It’s a book about some of the many brilliant works of crime fiction that were published in Russia during the late Imperial era, from the period of the Great Reforms of the 1860s up to the 1917 revolution. And I guess I wrote it with two main aims in mind. The first is that I wanted to find out more about the history of this genre that doesn’t really appear in the pages of Russia’s canonical literary history: who was writing crime fiction, what sort of works were they producing and were these works like the works we know from the same era in other countries? The second is that I wanted to provide something more than an historical survey: I wanted to look at how these stories, novellas and novels use their narrative structures to manipulate the reader’s access to knowledge, which is what I think of as the key currency of crime fiction. So, there are chapters on questions such as narrative authority, temporal organization, multiple voice, intertextuality and parody that make reference to a host of largely unknown, but really entertaining and interesting, works.

BK: How popular was crime fiction in 19th-century Russia? How familiar would Dostoevsky have been with the genre?

Very, and deservedly so. If you look at Avram Reitblat’s book, Ot Bovy k Bal’montu i drugie raboty po istoricheskoi sotsiologii russkoi literatury (From Bova to Balmont and other works on the historical sociology of Russian literature, 2009), numerous works of crime fiction during this period figured amongst the most widely read publications of their given year. These include: Nikolai Sokolovskii’s Ostrog i zhizn’: iz zapisok sledovatelia (Prison and Life: From the Notes of an Investigator) (1866), Nikolai Timofeev’s Zapiski sledovatelia (Notes of an Investigator) (1872), Aleksandr Shkliarevskii’s Collected Works (1881), as well, of course, as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Jeffrey Brooks’s When Russia Learned to Read (2003) makes clear that the rise in literacy rates, changes in publishing conditions, including the proliferation of smaller urban presses, ensured that crime fiction was readily available to (and hugely popular with!) Russian readers in the later part of this period, and right up to the 1917 revolution.

I think it’s fair to say that Dostoevsky was very familiar with the various authors who contributed to the birth of crime fiction in Russia. For instance, some of the earliest stories by Nikolai Sokolovskii were published in his journal, Vremia (Time), during 1862 and 1863. In the early 1870s, the aspiring crime writer Aleksandr Shkliarevskii wrote to Dostoevsky to declare his admiration for his works’ ‘deep psychological analysis’. And when Shkliarevskii moved to St Petersburg under the protection of the renowned prosecutor, A.F. Koni, he is said to have moved in some of the same circles as Dostoevsky. Moreover, given the popularity of these authors with a general readership, and Dostoevsky’s interest in all things connected with the law, it seems unlikely that Dostoevsky wouldn’t also have been reading these works.

BK: Crime and Punishment is obviously a text that must be addressed in your study, but it is not commonly read as crime fiction. Why is that?

I think there are a number of reasons. To some extent, it’s a question of the initial reception of the novel that has influenced its reading over subsequent years. When Crime and Punishment was first serialized, crime fiction was only just beginning to appear in Russia, and so there would have been little question of it being categorized in this genre. It was far more appropriate for it to be received as a work of critical realism in keeping with Belinskii’s call to action. And, as the era of the great realist novel in Russia continued to develop, Crime and Punishment, with its ideological, philosophical and existential concerns, fitted in with that particular narrative of literary historical development very productively. I do think it is important, however, to guard against any temptation to argue that Crime and Punishment is not primarily seen as crime fiction because there is so much else going on in the novel. I would suggest that that is, in fact, true of the majority of Russian crime fiction from this era, most of which displays a similar preoccupation with questions of socio-historical environment, individual psychology, determinism and free will, and the role of the law. Russian crime fiction of the late Imperial era is a sophisticated genre that shares many features with its more renowned or canonical literary cousins.

BK: I was intrigued to discover that, after Crime and Punishment, the Dostoevsky text your book discusses the most is Notes from the House of the Dead. This is a work about criminals and penal servitude, but I find it somewhat far from what I think of as crime fiction. What’s the connection?

I don’t claim in the book that Notes from the House of the Dead is a work of crime fiction. However, there are similarities between some of its features and works that do belong to the genre. So, for instance, Sokolovskii’s Prison and Life includes some stories that feature a judicial investigator working on criminal cases, but also others that simply recount his encounters with prison inmates and his knowledge of their habits and traditions whilst incarcerated, which are similar to those found in Dostoevsky’s work. This and other early examples of Russian crime fiction (such as Konstantin Popov’s Vinovatye i pravye (The Guilty and the Innocent) from 1871) make use of the type of physiological/ethnographic sketch that is to be found in Notes from the House of the Dead as well as, for instance, in a work such as V.V. Krestovskii’s Petersburg Slums (1864). And early Russian crime fiction seeks to create a strong sense of realism in part by its use of slang and dialect, which is another feature that is prominent in House of the Dead. So, it’s really a case of shared features rather than a common genre.

BK: Was Dostoevsky influential in 19th-century or later Russian crime fiction writing? What are some of the stories he influenced?

Yes, undoubtedly, although it’s obviously quite difficult definitively to establish influence. I’ve mentioned Dostoevsky’s connection with Aleksandr Shkliarevskii and I think you can see Shkliarevskii echoing a good number of his idol’s preoccupations with questions around criminal psychology, the role of environment and fate as well as with literary techniques related to temporal organisation and narrative voice. More specifically, in Shkliarevskii’s 1872 story ‘Otchego on ubil ikh?’ (‘Why Did He Kill Them?’), the protagonist, Narostov, who has strangled his wife and shot his mistress, refers to himself as a member of the ‘house of the dead’ and expounds on what he sees as the qualities of Dostoevsky’s depiction of the enigma of crime in that work. There are also clear points of resemblance between Dostoevsky’s concern with the plight of the lower echelons of society and Nikolai Timofeev’s plots in stories such as ‘Murder and Suicide’ and ‘The Prostitute’ in his Notes of an Investigator collection. I would also argue that Aleksandra Sokolova’s refusal of an easy explanation of criminal motive in a work such as Spetaia pesnia (The Song Has Been Sung) (1892) reveals the influence of Dostoevsky.

BK: How much influence did other crime fiction from the time have on Dostoevsky?

Again, I think it’s quite difficult to establish this definitively, but there’s no question in my mind that Dostoevsky was aware of the crime writing of the time and that it affected him to some extent. So, for example, I’ve always wondered whether the description in Sokolovskii’s story ‘Skvernye minuty’ (‘Fateful Minutes’), first published in 1863, of a prostitute, Lizaveta, who hides a stolen wallet under the wallpaper near the plinth of her door, might have given Dostoevsky the idea for Raskolnikov’s stashing of what he has stolen from Alyona Ivanovna. More broadly, the depiction of broken family relations that lead to crime, of the type that Dostoevsky illustrates in The Brothers Karamazov, were a staple of Russian crime fiction throughout the 1860s and 1870s. And, the recognition that scenes played out in law courts were ripe with dramatic potential might well have been influenced by other crime writers, such as Semyon Panov and Nikolai Timofeev, who frequently included an account of criminal trials in their work.

BK: Does reading Dostoevsky within the context of 19th-century crime fiction shift our understanding of Dostoevsky’s works?

Yes, potentially. One of the first arguments I make in my book is that Dostoevsky should not be considered to be the first or only author of crime fiction writing in the 1860s. Dostoevsky’s fascination with various aspects of the legal system both in Russia and abroad, expressed not just in Crime and Punishment but also in Notes from the House of the Dead and, later, in The Brothers Karamazov, is far from being unique during this period. Debates conducted in polemical journalism about the proposed legal reforms influenced a good many writers, and these preoccupations found their way into a numerous literary works. Also, to a reader more familiar with the ‘Western’ canon of crime fiction, Crime and Punishment seems at odds with the genre’s conventions because there is no mystery whatsoever about the identity of the criminal. However, when you place Dostoevsky’s novel in the context of works of crime fiction from this early period, you discover that none of them are really interested in the question of ‘whodunit’. Louise McReynolds has written very persuasively about the Russian genre’s greater interest in the issue of ‘whydunit’ and the implications of that focus: she argues that whilst the ‘whodunit’ accuses an individual, the ‘whydunit’ points the finger of guilt at broader, more collective social forces. None of this is to take away from Dostoevsky’s achievements; but it is important to view him as part of a broader literary-cultural movement, many of whose participants have been forgotten.

BK: What is your favourite work of 19th-century crime fiction and why?

Hmmm… that’s a difficult one. Of course, I genuinely love Crime and Punishment and always have such fun talking about its various aspects with my students. But looking beyond that landmark, I would say my favourite author currently is Semyon Panov who wrote five works of crime fiction in the 1870s, all of which are deserving of a much greater reputation. Of his works, I think that Ubiistvo v derevne Medveditse (Murder in Medveditsa Village) (1872) is a very accomplished and rich work, and the dizzying parody Iz zhizni uezdnogo gorodka (From the Life of a Provincial Town) (1876) is well worth a read, not least because I think it might well have influenced Chekhov later on.

BK: Why do you think nearly all of the texts you discuss are not translated into English yet? And do you know of any plans to translate them?

There is still a good deal of ignorance about the existence of many of these works (in spite of my and others’ best efforts) and so they aren’t immediately obvious choices for translators. Many of them have not been reprinted even in Russian since their first publication, or at least not since the late nineteenth century. I would love for someone to translate them and have begun to do some work on trying to find translators with whom I could collaborate. The project that I’m most excited about at the moment, though, is my collaboration with the illustrator and author, Carol Adlam (www.caroladlam.co.uk), on a graphic-novel adaptation into English of Semyon Panov’s Tri suda, ili ubiistvo vo vremia bala (Three Courts, of Murder During the Ball) from 1876. Carol is the artist behind the brilliant cover image of my book and we have just received some seed-funding from the University of St Andrews to produce about ten pages of proof-of-concept artwork to be able to pitch the full adaptation to a publisher. We are hoping that this might be the first step on a longer journey of bringing some more of these works to an anglophone audience, and in an exciting and popular medium.


A specialist in nineteenth-century Russian literature, Claire Whitehead is Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews. Her books include The Fantastic in France and Russia in the Nineteenth Century: In Pursuit of Hesitation (2006) and The Poetics of Early Russian Crime Fiction, 1860-1917: Deciphering Stories of Detection (2018). Growing up, she flirted with the idea of becoming a police officer or a forensic scientist, before deciding on the far more glamorous career of an academic.

The cover image at the top of the page is original artwork by Carol Adlam and appears with the artist’s permission. 

 

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