Fyodor Dostoevski Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2243

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...

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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 sister comes in, and he is forced to kill her. Later, two clients show up at the door at the same time as two house painters in an adjacent room are having a brawl. The murderer ducks into a vacant room, making a narrow escape. When he wakes up out of a delirious sleep, he is summoned to the police station, but the police want him simply because he owes his landlady money.

Dostoevski pulls a double reversal, as the murderer hears the story of the murder being discussed and faints. Soon the hunt is on. A mysterious informant appears; just when the detective seems to have the murderer trapped, another suspect dashes in with a false confession. Then, when Raskolnikov confesses his crime to a sympathetic prostitute, the man who wants to seduce Raskolnikov’s sister overhears the confession, adding the complication of blackmail. For all of its lofty themes, Crime and Punishment is built around plot machinations similar to those of the thrillers devoured by modern audiences.

Dostoevski, however, is writing more than a potboiler. He is writing a murder mystery that can serve as an archetypal study of the genre. Often, the victim in a murder mystery is reduced to the status of a deserving victim. Dostoevski highlights this point; his murderer establishes philosophical grounds for murdering a loathsome person. In a letter to his publisher, Dostoevski described the murder victim as “an old woman, deaf, stupid, evil, and ailing, who herself does not know why she continues living . . . and who after a month, perhaps, would die anyway.” Raskolnikov sees her as an insect, without the right to live and thus deserving of death. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan questions his father’s right to live and finds a clear rationale for murdering the despicable drunkard even though he himself does not commit the murder. Dostoevski defines the murder victim as a person, who, at least in the eyes of the murderer, deserves to die.

Dostoevski also defines the detective. In Crime and Punishment, Porfiry antedates not only Sherlock Holmes but many of the other creations of the early twentieth century mystery writers as well; nevertheless, in him, one can see some of the traits of the modern detective. He is an ordinary civil servant working out of a modest apartment. Like many modern detectives—Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo is a classic example—Porfiry is a middle-aged, corpulent man who is aware that his appearance and manners often reveal him to be a slightly comic figure. Thus, it is easy for people to underestimate this master of criminal psychology, adept at using small talk, non sequiturs, and circumlocutions to entrap his quarry.

Porfiry subtly drops hints that he knows Raskolnikov’s every move, tells him that he likes to keep criminals at bay so that they can ensnare themselves, works Raskolnikov up to a frenzy using evasive tactics, and then calms him by opening a window to give him fresh air. Like a modern detective, he takes an interest in the suspect and is moved by Raskolnikov’s misguided actions. He combines the toughness of a grueling interrogator, who keeps the criminal dangling in a cat-and-mouse game, with the sympathetic concern of a father confessor, who wants the fallen sinner to admit the error of his ways.

Another modern characteristic of Dostoevski’s murder mystery is the creation of the anguished world out of which the crime arises. Raskolnikov walks down what Raymond Chandler calls the mean streets of the fallen city. Wandering through the St. Petersburg slums, Raskolnikov encounters a would-be rapist about to take advantage of a delirious young girl, watches a woman throw herself off a bridge, and finds a drunkard who has been run over and left bleeding in the street.

Raskolnikov’s environment is oppressive. His apartment is a cramped cubicle with soiled wallpaper, the streets through which he flounders are teeming with squalor, and the world in which he lives is filled with sensuality and violence. In one scene, which could come directly out of a modern detective thriller, Raskolnikov’s sister fends off a would-be rapist. She shoots him, grazing his head, but her anger only arouses him more; he dares her to kill him.

Finally, in the bulk of his novel, Dostoevski examines the psychology of the criminal mind. Raskolnikov becomes the archetype for many modern criminals. Like most criminals, he sees himself as above the law. He holds the doctrine that exceptional individuals such as himself are allowed to murder ordinary individuals who stand in their way. Dostoevski highlights this point not only in Raskolnikov’s philosophy but also in Ivan Karamazov’s dictum that all things can be made lawful.

The criminal is also seen as an isolated and alienated individual. Haunted and hunted, he is suspicious of everyone and breaks off all human contact. Raskolnikov severs all ties with family and friends. The criminal is seen as pathological, for as Raskolnikov writes in his article, crime begets illness. Raskolnikov is delirious, agitated, subject to delusions, and haunted by nightmares. The criminal is viewed not as a stock villain but as a troubled individual plagued by a dual nature, capable of great kindness as well as of extreme cruelty. Raskolnikov can give his money away to a poor widow and save children from a burning fire at the same time that he can kill a helpless mentally disabled girl. Such is the case of the modern mobster in the gangland thriller; a godfather figure can minister to the needs of his family while at the same time casually ordering murders. This focus on the criminal’s divided nature adds complexity to the crime novel.

One of the key factors in standard detective fiction is the search for a single motive, but Dostoevski, anticipating a more modern perspective, does not limit the criminal’s motives to one factor. So complex are Raskolnikov’s motives that he himself cannot sort them out. Besides examining the complexity of the criminal’s motives, Dostoevski highlights two central aspects of criminal behavior: the return to the scene of the crime and the compulsion to confess. In a modern mystery, the murderer often stealthily returns to the scene of the crime, perhaps to destroy some pieces of evidence, but Raskolnikov brazenly returns to the pawnbroker’s room and asks about the blood. He dares two painters to come to the police station so that he can explain his snooping. This scene also shows his compulsion to confess.

Often the murder mystery focuses on the detective’s exposure of the murderer and the murderer’s bold confession, which comes as a final catharsis. Raskolnikov wants to confess from the moment he commits the crime. No less than a dozen times, he finds himself on the verge of admitting the truth. In many a murder mystery, it is this subconscious will to confess that often causes the murderer to slip up and leave himself vulnerable to the ever-prying detective. Finally, in his confessions, Raskolnikov discovers the real nightmare of the murder mystery. The murderer in the act of killing another kills himself. Even in a simple murder mystery, the murderer faces execution or the ruin of his life. In Dostoevski’s work, he destroys his soul.

Dostoevski uses many stylistic devices to capture the workings of the criminal mind. He uses interior monologues composed of short, clipped sentences and intersperses rambling soliloquies with rapid-fire dialogue. He also depends heavily on repetition of key words and associates certain words with certain characters. Characters’ names are associated with their psychological traits as well; Raskolnikov is derived from raskolnik, meaning a schismatic.

In many ways, Dostoevski transcends the limits of the mystery genre; in others, he is thoroughly modern. Both Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald held that the modern hard-boiled detective novel is about goodness in the midst of evil, pure-heartedness in the midst of depravity, and courage in the midst of cowardice. Both writers believed that the murder mystery is about the art of redemption, and the art of redemption is the key to Dostoevski’s murder mysteries. Instead of a finely tuned aesthetic experience based on cleverly developed, rational deductions, he offers the reader a deeply felt, mystical experience based on sin, suffering, and redemption.

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