Fyodor Dostoevski is one of the most important figures in the history of the modern novel. His works explore such existential dilemmas as universal guilt, human alienation, the meaning of human suffering, and the limits of morality. His characters are tormented individuals living on the fringe of society, torn between their sensual appetites and their longings for spiritual fulfillment. They are split apart by their self-centered egotism and their need to be a part of the human community and are always searching for certainty in an uncertain world. Dostoevski explores the ambivalence of human emotions, plumbs the nightmare world of the human psyche, and lays bare the anguish of the human soul, torn between self-glorification and self-abasement. His characters reach salvation only through a life of pain and suffering. Only by experiencing the dregs of life can they partake of the mystery of redemption.
Although his themes are somewhat lofty for the detective and mystery genre, Dostoevski foreshadowed many of the character types who would later populate the modern detective thriller. His novels are inhabited by rapists, child molesters, sadists, prostitutes, and cold-blooded murderers who hold themselves above the laws of God and human beings; he also portrays revolutionaries, insurgents, spies, and counterspies. Dostoevski takes the reader into the stench and squalor of the slums, where vice and corruption are a way of life. In his novels, scenes of violence intermingle with drunken orgies. His works deal with lengthy criminal investigations, detailed police interrogations, and prolonged manhunts.
The Brothers Karamazov
Although elements of crime and detection are a staple part of Dostoevski’s canon, only two novels, as noted above, can be truly considered detective novels or murder mysteries: The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. The Brothers Karamazov is a crime thriller and a mystery novel. When Fyodor Karamazov is brutally murdered, the evidence points clearly to his son Dmitri, who has threatened and attacked his father over money matters and their attempts to woo the same woman. Because he is caught escaping from his father’s house on the night of the murder and is found spending large sums of money, he is arrested, tried, and convicted of murder. He is not, however, the murderer. The real murderer commits suicide. In The Brothers Karamazov, the detectives and prosecutors discover clues, compile evidence, and listen to reliable testimony but miss the essential points. Nevertheless, the novel is more than a detective story; it is a story about universal guilt, a story in which God, himself, is put on trial.
In critical articles on the detective novel, The Brothers Karamazov is cited less often than Crime and Punishment. Yet the critical debate over Crime and Punishment demonstrates how controversial is Dostoevski’s status as a writer of murder mysteries. According to W. H. Auden, Crime and Punishment is not a true detective story but a work of art because “its effect on the reader is to compel an identification with the murderer.” In his opinion, the detective story is a fantasy story, and “fantasy is always an attempt to avoid one’s own suffering,” whereas Crime and Punishment is a work of art that allows the reader to share “in the suffering of another.”
Disagreeing with Auden, Julian Symons writes that the crime story can be a work of art but “a work of art of a peculiar flawed kind, since an appetite for violence and a pleasure in employing a conjurer’s sleight of hand seem somehow to be adulterating the finest skills of a novelist.” In addition, Symons believes, “at his best the crime writer can illuminate the condition of society and interpret psychotic states of mind, but he never moves like Dostoevski in mystical regions where spiritual truths are being considered.” John Cawelti dismisses Crime and Punishment on purely formal grounds. In his opinion, a murder mystery must conceal the crime, focus on an inquiry into hidden clues, and leave the revelation of the criminal until the end of the story. He finds that “Crime and Punishment does not fulfill a single one of the basic structural conditions of the classical detective formula.”
It would be beyond the scope of this analysis to assess the definitive elements of a detective story. Certainly, Dostoevski does not strictly follow the Edgar Allan Poe/ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle formula. Doyle did not start writing his Sherlock Holmes stories until 1887, after Dostoevski had already completed his major novels. Clearly, Dostoevski was not interested primarily in a tale of ratiocination based on a whodunit model. In discussing Crime and Punishment, he states that he is writing a “psychological account of a crime,” a true murder mystery that takes into account not only the crime but also the criminal.
Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment shows the way in which Dostoevski skillfully creates the suspenseful elements of the murder mystery thriller. Raskolnikov, a derelict student, plans to kill an elderly pawnbroker. He cases her home carefully, discovers that she will be alone at a certain time, and counts the 750 steps to her apartment (exhibiting a truly Holmesian eye for detail). Despite his careful planning, the murderer is caught in the act when the pawnbroker’s demented...
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