Death in Nostalgia City

By Mark S. Bacon

A new look at a classic murder story

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Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Vintage Books    564 pages
$17.95

Two women are hacked to death with an axe and some valuables stolen from their apartment.   The killer, Rodion Raskolnikov, is at first trapped in the apartment when two men knock at the door and refuse to go away.   After a suspenseful few minutes Raskolnikov manages to escape unseen.   The mystery then becomes not who did it, because most of the book is written from the killer’s point of view, but which of two forces will ultimately be his undoing, the police or his dark, deranged mind that leads him to alternately wander the streets at night or hold up in his claustrophobic apartment while suffering fever, fainting and fantastic dreams.

After the murder, which takes place in mid-nineteenth century St. Petersburg, Russia, Raskolnikov’s mother and beautiful sister Dunya arrive from the country followed by the sister’s manipulative fiancée who Raskolnikov insults at their first meeting.  Raskolnikov’s sister is also pursued by a lecherous former employer bent on having Dunya one way or the other.  Soon a casual alcoholic acquaintance of Raskolnikov dies and sends his family into hysterics while the drunk’s self-effacing daughter, who has become a prostitute to support the family, catches Raskolnikov’s eye.

In this edition’s foreword, translator Richard Pevear compares the book to the Hindu parable of the blind men describing an elephant each by touching a different part, and indeed the subplots mentioned above head in different directions all held together by Raskolnikov.  So rather than explore all of Dostoevsky’s complex characters,  his overlapping themes, historical and literary allusions, let’s look at the book simply as a murder story.Crime and Punishment cover

Even though we know whodunit, the murder investigation and the exploration of Raskolnikov’s psyche is anything but straightforward.  A handsome young man in his early 20s, Raskolnikov is an impoverished, sickly former law student dressed in rags.  He lives in a garret or tiny flat and is afraid to run into his landlady because he’s behind on the rent.   He develops a scheme to kill and rob an elderly pawnbroker which he does early in the novel.  He also kills the pawnbroker’s sister who drops in unexpectedly.   The crime accomplished, the majority of the book focuses on the punishment which takes place largely in Raskolnikov’s head.

While he may regret the crime for what it may cost him, he doesn’t regret taking the life of someone he considers worthless.  Getting rid of the miserable crone was a favor to society.  The sister simply became, in modern vernacular, collateral damage.  Taking a view that separates mankind into the “ordinary and the extraordinary” Raskolnikov feels he is above most men and that the extraordinary ones may transcend conventional morality if the betterment of society is at stake.  As it quickly becomes obvious, Raskolnikov is far from a level-headed polemic.  Either his wacky moral beliefs are not enough to assuage his seeping guilt, or he’s on the verge of madness and all bets based on logic–even a twisted one–are off.  As mentioned, he wanders the streets having extended conversations with himself about his crime, his pursuers and a strange notion that since he’s committed a crime he is now free to do good deeds for others, for society.  But even when he donates some of his limited money, he seems to reinforce his appearance of derangement.

Hot on Raskolnikov’s trail is Porfiry Petrovich, a police detective who seems to understand the complex psychological aspects of the young man’s motivations.  A pudgy official of 35, his method of dealing with Raskolnikov is essentially to give him enough rope as the crime cliché says, but perhaps this method was not as commonplace when the book was published in 1866.  In a masterful scene slightly beyond the halfway point of the book,  Raskolnikov is summoned to Petrovich’s office where the detective lays out, in theoretical terms, what a perfectly solved murder case might involve, while he professes to be an awkward investigator.

“…suppose there is evidence sir, [he tells Raskolnikov] but evidence, my dear, is mostly double-ended, and I am an investigator and therefore, I confess, a weak man: I would like to present my investigation with, so to speak, mathematical clarity; I would like to get a hold of a piece of evidence that’s something like two times two is four! Something like direct and indisputable proof!  But if I were to lock him [a suspect] up at the wrong time–even though I’m sure it was him–I might well deprive myself of the means of his further incrimination.”

Petrovich even admits his interrogation techniques are clumsy, but he uses a telling metaphor.

“Tell me, really, who among all the accused, even the most cloddish peasant doesn’t know, for instance, that they [investigators] will first lull him with unrelated questions (to use your happy expression) and then suddenly stun him right on the head, with an axe…”

Again talking theoretically, Petrovich tells Raskolnikov that in some cases letting a suspect think that he knows his inner secrets and that he, the suspect, is being followed day and night will push the suspected person into making fatal mistakes.

Although Petrovich seems to be talking abstractedly, his message unnerves Raskolnikov to the point where he tells himself he’d like to “hurl himself at Porfiry and strangle him on the spot.”   Near the climax of the scene, Raskolnikov pounds his fist on the table and shouts, “Don’t taunt me!  I won’t have it!”

The case against Raskolnikov is not assured, however, compounded by another person’s confessing to the crime and the possibility that Raskolnikov may be completely loony so that the “cat and mouse game” (Petrovich’s words) proceeds with unexpected turns throughout the novel.

If anything in this book sounds familiar, it’s because mystery and suspense writers have had nearly 150 years to read Dostoevsky and benefit from his insights, copy his style or simply lift ideas.  The book is filled with what has become standard detective story fare: the killer returning to the scene of the crime, a protracted search for the best place to hide the loot, paranoia over being followed, frantic attempts to remove all blood stains, confiding the crime in secret to a girlfriend (a hooker with a heart of gold), the criminal’s belief that he’s somehow entitled to his plunder and a detective seeking a confession.  Petrovich’s roundabout interrogation of Raskolnikov sounds remarkably like the bumbling yet savvy Lieutenant Columbo (Peter Falk) from the TV series of the 1970s and 80s.

It would be a mistake to call this the original noir or hardboiled detective book, but the mood and the settings are decidedly grim.  The characters populate cramped, oppressive rooms decorated with faded, pealing wallpaper and frayed furniture.  Many are dressed in ragged clothes, have little or no money and, with a few exceptions, bleak prospects.   Suspicion, shame and fear are common and the dirty city streets are filled with falling-down drunks.  One particularly dark scene describes a horse being beaten to death in the street in front of cheering onlookers when it fails to pull an intentionally overloaded wagon.

Raskolnikov’s extended, abstract inner dialogs can become a little mind-numbing, and complicating the read is the custom of Russians to be called by their last names sometimes, or their first two names, or sometimes a nickname.  Within the same paragraph a character can be referred to by several different names–a challenge to English-speaking readers.  These issues aside, it’s easy to see why this novel is a towering classic.   It’s a powerful story, with complex characters, a strong emotional–and intellectual base–and an engrossing blueprint for the crime novels that followed it.

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E-book notes  This print version of the novel has many useful footnotes explaining aspects of Russian culture and language, historical and geographical references, plus relevant elements of the author’s background.  It also contains a foreword by one of the two renown translators and a useful character list with a guide to pronunciation of the names.

This novel also appears in an e-book collection of all of the author’s work, translated by Constance Garnett, that was available for the Kindle.  All of the novels were combined in the file, making the percentage read gage and word search all but useless.  According to the Amazon Web site, Dostoevsky’s books, also translated by Garnett, are now available separately–and free.

Cinema notes  According to imdb.com, there are no fewer than 30 Crime and Punishment films, many produced in other countries.  The most recent US production was a 2002 film starring Vanessa Redgrave, John Hurt and Crispin Glover.  A 1935 version starred Edward Arnold as Porfiry Petrovich and Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov.

Note for longtime readers/followers In revising my website there was no room for a separate page dedicated to mystery reviews.  I will continue to review mystery and suspense books (and and few films) but they will be contained in the blog page.  This review originally appeared in the book review section of this site.

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