The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense ed. by Otto Penzler

Given my interest in Russian literature, it should come as no surprise that I was delighted to receive a review copy of The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense. The introduction written by Otto Penzler includes some interesting observations about the existence of detective fiction in a society in which individualism does not flourish, and notes that Russian crime and suspense fiction contains a “pervasive darkness” that “rivals the relatively new fiction genre that is often termed noir.”

Most of us will be familiar with some of the Great Names of 19th Century Russian literature, but what is interesting is that we get lesser titles by some of those big names. Here’s a breakdown of the contents:

Boris Akunin Table Talk

A chapter from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment

Vil Lipatov Genka Paltsev, Son of Dimitri

Nikolai Gogol The Portrait

Anton Chekhov The Swedish Match

Anton Chekhov Sleepy

Anton Chekhov The Head Gardener’s Story

Anton Chekhov The Bet

Alexander Pushkin The Queen of Spades

Lev Sheinin The Hunting Knife

Ivan Bunin The Gentleman from San Francisco

P. Nitikin The Strangler

Vladimir Nabokov Revenge

Nikolai Lyeskov The Sentry

Maxim Gorky A Strange Murderer

Boris Sokoloff The Crime of Doctor Garine

Nikolai Gogol The Overcoat

Leo Tolstoy God Sees the Truth, but Waits

Leo Tolstoy Too Dear

Bunin’s story The Gentleman from San Francisco is considered to be one of the best pieces he wrote, and of course, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades appears in many collections. Gogol’s story The Portrait, a story of an artist who trades in his integrity for fame morphs into the tale of a portrait with special powers. This story contained unexpected shades of German Romanticism, and so it was entirely different from Dead Souls. Some of the stories were humourous: The Swedish Match (very funny) or had a witty ironic edge. While some of the names are familiar, included in the collection are some names that were new to me:Vil Lipatov, Lev Sheinin, Boris Sokoloff, & P. Nitikin.

With the authors and choices in this collection, it wasn’t easy to narrow down some favourites, but since I’d read a couple  of the stories before, I’m selecting stories that are new-to-me. This brings me to Chekhov’s The Bet (1889), a story I didn’t really expect from Chekhov (although I know he’d written masses of short stories) and a story which reminds me of no small degree of Dostoevsky.

During a dinner party, a group of men talk about capital punishment:

The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life.

The host, an extremely wealthy banker argues for the death penalty:

 I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?

A lively, passionate debate ensues with a 25-year-old lawyer stating that if he had to choose, he’d choose imprisonment for life over execution. The banker challenges the lawyer to a wager, and he bets the lawyer that he cannot stay in solitary confinement for five years. In a few seconds, five years becomes 15, and the banker bets two million against the lawyer being able to stay locked up for 15 years.

And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet. At supper he made fun of the young man and said:

“Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two millions are a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you.”

Of course, in this speech, tinged with a condescending manner, the banker is really egging the young man on, and he takes the bait. The banker realises that this meaningless bet will not “prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life,” and that the bet is “the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money….” 

But does the banker underestimate the lawyer? They are, after all, locked in a contest of will.

The lawyer agrees to confinement in one of the lodges owned by the banker. There “under the strictest supervision” he is to remain for 15 years.

It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted–books, music, wine, and so on–in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window.

Will the lawyer sweat out his 15 years of solitary? Will he go insane or will he break free one day when he can stand it no longer?

A number of the stories in the collection are concerned with punishment (The Head Gardener’s Story), and that’s no doubt a reflection of the society in which they were written. Tolstoy’s story–a parable of sorts– Too Dear, explores the nature of punishment solely through its cost to the king who demands punishment.

Boris Sokoloff’s The Crime of Doctor Garine (1927) is a strange story and one I enjoyed a great deal-even though the ending didn’t answer all the questions the story raised. Doctor Garine admits murdering his wife in the most brutal manner but refuses to explain himself. There seems little doubt that he committed the crime, and since he freely admits it, motivation is the key element, and the motivation is gradually spun out through the details of the trial. During the trial and the appearance of various witnesses, Garine is calm, controlled and mostly unemotional. As the testimony builds, we see how the importance of why the crime is committed is paramount, and how this sensational trial is fundamentally society’s way of trying to understand what happened. The Crime of Doctor Garine is especially interesting for its emphasis on psychological motives; indeed a psychologist is even called to talk to Garine who mocks his profession.

Otto Penzler notes that the Russian approach to detective fiction is different to the western approach while discussing the shifts in the genre through the 20th century and modern writers of Russian detective fiction such as Victor Dotsenko and Aleksandra Marinina.

Among Russian writers, detective novels have flourished, and readers in the former Soviet U.S.S. R. have made them their preferred choice of reading matter. In a reader survey taken in 1995, more than 32% of men and 24% of women named “detektivy” as their favorite type of book.

Russian Radio Kultura regularly plays readings of British detective novels–including some obscure titles from Georgette Heyer & Agatha Christie.

One criticism of the collection that I’ve read is that it focuses too much on the 19th century, but that, surely, just begs for volume two. My complaint is reserved for the comment about Sophia (Sofya) Tolstoy. The intro to God Sees the Truth, but Waits says that Tolstoy, “tired of his life as a libertine, [he] married in 1862 and in, an effort at candor, showed his wife his diaries, leading to lifelong distrust and jealousy.”  Tolstoy’s diaries contained details of his sexual relationships with women–hardly the romantic, tactful or sensitive reading one would give to a virgin bride on a wedding night. Tolstoy was a genius as a writer, but left a lot of room for improvement in the husband department, and while he may have told himself that giving Sophia his diaries which included his sexual conquests of prostitutes and peasant women was an act of “candor,” that’s open to idle speculation & debate. Who knows what motivates people, but in my book, Sophia had the patience of a saint.


Filed under Bunin Ivan, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Fiction, Gogol, Nikolai, Gorky Maxim, Leskov, Nikolai, Nabokov, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Leo

12 responses to “The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense ed. by Otto Penzler

  1. Though an offbeat topic and book, this sounds like a good read.

    I like Chekov but have never read The Bet. The story sounds intriguing has enormous dramatic and thematic potential. I think that at the very least I should read that one.

  2. That’s an intriguing collection. I am a bit surprised, i admit, by some of the inclusions: is “The Gentleman from San Francisco” really a crime story? Or Gogol’s “Overcoat”? I am a bit surprised also by the absence of Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” – in many ways the grand-daddy of noir. But a lot of the titles there I haven’t read: i’ll try to seek this one out.

    “The Bet” has long seemed to me to be Chekhov trying to write a fable in the manner of his idol Tolstoy, but now that you point out the parallels to Dostoyevsky 9which i ha missed), it strkies me that those two Russian giants weren’t perhaps as far from each other as they may at first seem.

    • I wouldn’t have called The Gentleman from SF a crime story or even a suspense story. The intro goes into some length about how detective fiction in 19th C (Tsarist Russia) and beyond was influenced by the state, but I’m still not sure it belongs in the collection.

      I’m thinking that perhaps the absence of Lady Macbeth (which screamed for inclusion) was a matter of copyright. Just a guess.

      I liked the collection for its scope and also the survey of Russian writers, so if a person is a newbie, this is a good place to start.

  3. What an appealing collection. I often think of the Russians as of some of the first who wrote about crime in a very detailed way. No wonder there was enough for a whole collection and I’ sure there would be a lot for a second part.
    I watched a movie on Tolstoy’s final years (The Last Station) which I found quite odd. I pictured him diferent. What a tumultuous marriage that must have been.

    • There are many old Soviet films set in the 20s w/detective characters. They can be a bit cheesy but still fun.

      The Last Station is excellent isn’t it? I almost didn’t want to watch it as I knew Tolstoy was difficult and I didn’t want my attitude to the man to alter my love for hsi books.

  4. That book was made for you, wasn’t it? Crime fiction + Russia, what a treat!

    It’s interesting that the arguments against death penalty listed in that quote don’t include the possibility of miscarriage of justice. If the actual culprit appears after you’ve killed the wrong man, nothing can be done.

    • It’s funny that you should mention that as one of the stories is directly concerned with the miscarriage of justice, but it’s not an execution–more a matter of forgiveness.

  5. It does seem an obvious fit for you, Emma’s quite right.

    I suspect I’ll pass on this one, the choices seem a bit idiosyncratic and I’m drowning in books anyway. Love Chekov though, his plays anyway. Is his fiction as good?

    • I think his fiction is marvellous. Vintage puts out a complete short novels book which you would really enjoy. It includes The Duel.

      I think this collection would be perfect for someone who doesn’t want to jump in Russian literature with a 600-800 page book. It’s a better way to get used to the names w/o losing the plot.

  6. leroyhunter

    It’s a nice theme for a collection, and an interesting selection. Isn’t Akunin the chap who writes that hugely popular series about a Tsarist detective? He’s in exalted company here if so.

    I have: 3 volumes of Chekov’s stories, re-issued recently by Penguin; the P&V translation of Gogol’s short stories; and the P&V Vintage collection of all Tolstoy’s short fiction – all sitting unread on the shelf.

    From which I draw two conclusions: I don’t need this collection, and sometimes the TBR pile just depresses you.

    • Having a lot of books is a great thing–especially if like me there were none in the childhood home (except an old bible), but I know I’m in trouble when I come across a book that sounds great and then I find a copy of it already sitting on my shelf.

    • I just noticed that I didn’t reply to your question. Yes you are correct. That is the same author.

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