Tag Archives: crime & punishment

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.

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Colony by Hugo Wilcken

“I must kill memory once and for all

I must turn my soul to stone,

I must learn to live again.”  from the poem The Sentence by Anna Akhmatova (translated by Judith Hemschemeyer)

colonyOne of the reasons I started blogging was with the idea in mind that I’d pick up some great recommendations along the way, and that happened recently when John Self over at the Asylum recommended a book I’d never heard of, Hugo Wilcken’s Colony. I just finished the novel and I’ve one word to say SUPERB!

Colony is set in 1928 and begins just before a shipload of convicts arrives at the French penal colony of Saint-Laurent. Saint-Laurent is the port in French Guiana at which “selection” takes place and convicts are sorted and shifted to other locations. The bulk of the story is told through the eyes of Sabir, a 30-year-old WWI veteran, and in spite of the fact he’s survived the trenches, he’s quite aware that surviving in a penal colony is another matter entirely. Sabir keeps a nervous eye on fellow inmate Bonifacio, a Corsican jewel thief who holds a position of unassailable power on the ship. Apart from his threatening physical presence, since Bonifacio escaped from a penal colony and made it back to France, he knows what awaits the convicts and knows the basic geography of the area, and this makes Bonifacio a valuable, yet difficult, source of information.

Sabir is an excellent observer and a quick learner, and he rapidly and falsely manages to gain a coveted job as a gardener. He’s sent to Camp Renee where he becomes the convict pet of the deranged camp commandant.

If you tend to have a fondness for Joseph Conrad (like me) then just a very basic plot outline of Colony should have you dashing out of the door for the nearest bookshop. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed in this intense novel and its examination of colonialism, freedom, and identity.

One of the fascinating aspects of Colony is that the book takes a slightly different view of the old colonial paradigm. Whereas most fiction books on the subject of colonialism focus on a) the mistreatment of the native/subjugated population and/or b) the corrosive taint of colonialism on the dominant culture, Colony fascinates by its focus on how exactly a dominant world power, France in this case, spews out the debris of empire on the distant shores of French Guiana. In Colony, while the white men are still on the top of the heap, the book focuses on how other men who are outcasts of French society fit into the schema. Some of the convicts (Sabir and Edouard) are WWI veterans, but that fact certainly doesn’t ameliorate their sentences.The natives remain noticeably (and sensibly) in the background while the French masters exploit their fellow citizens–underlings for the most part who’ve fallen foul of the French legal system for a range of reasons.

It’s interesting to note that preceding chapter one there’s an appropriate quote from Dante’s Inferno: “I did not die–yet nothing of life remained.”  Oddly enough, in my desire to begin the novel I didn’t see this quote until later, and yet the Inferno came strongly to mind for the first few chapters of the novel, but the quote that I recalled was “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.” When Sabir arrives, it would seem that he’s arrived in hell–hell on earth, that is, and the only escape is death. Just as Dante describes the various levels of hell, Sabir discovers that life on a penal colony is also composed of variations of hell: arrival is just the bridge to the next level–the best level of hell is acquiring a job as a house servant for an official, and the worst level of hell–the level to be avoided at all costs–is life at the forest camps where disease, hunger and drudgery await. Here again I thought of another quote–but this time the quote wasn’t from Dante: it was from Nazi death camps, such as Dachau & Auschwitz : “Work Shall Set You Free.” (Arbeit Macht Frei). It’s a particularly sadistic, twisted and sickly ironic turn of phrase, isn’t it?

One of the greatest scenes in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness describes the futility of a French man-of-war “firing into a continent.” This sort of lunacy exists in Colony mainly through the Commandant’s futile efforts to recreate a French country mansion–complete with an Orchid garden–in the middle of the jungle, using convict labour. The Commandant’s strange form of jungle megalomania assumes the shape of incredibly detailed plans for the future, and the Commandant plays with scale models while he drinks himself into oblivion.

While on one level Colony is a marvellous story that takes place within a French penal colony, on another level the parallels within the rich text allow the reader to make subtle connections  and in the process engage in a meditation  on the subjects of freedom and identity. The convicts who are all “judicial objects[s]” arrive stripped of any personal possessions, and all that remains are their names and sometimes their crimes, but even the crimes they committed form a type of identity. Thrown out in the jungle in a dehumanizing system where the strong, the crafty and the savage survive, identities morph and become as useless as other trappings from society. 

Parallels can be drawn between WWI and the sentence at the penal colony. In the strict hierarchy of both systems, orders are given and must be obeyed as lives are thrown away, and it’s no coincidence that memories of the trenches and memories of those who died begin to haunt Sabir. Parallels may also be drawn between the Commandant’s behaviour and the obsessive behavior of an orchid grower, one of the main character’s great-uncles:

“He was remembering his great-uncle’s house in Chiswick, with its greenhouse that took up most of the garden, and the reflections of the orchids that would bounce off the glass walls. The morgue-like stillness of everything inside was what had most impressed. Row upon row of little pots, each carefully numbered and labelled. He could see his great-uncle toiling away with his orchids, potting them, repotting them, feeding them, enveloping them in a fine water mist, lavishing his love on them, day in, day out, always the same, year after year….It was an existence that had been polished and finished until it was like a perfectly round, shiny pebble, with no irregularities, a life that admitted no way in and no way out.”

But is it necessarily negative to devote one’s life to obscure projects, obsessing on the trivial until the trivial becomes the essential? Is it a ‘bad’ thing to perfect one’s existence as the orchid grower does and find some sort of happiness and sense of purpose in such an endless task? 

Wilcken seems to be saying that a sense of purpose, even an obsessive sense of purpose, can be a wonderful thing. The orchid grower continually cultivates and expands his garden while in contrast, everything the commandant undertakes fails. At one point in the novel, he imports dozens of boxes of orchids from France, but they rot en route, and the commandant moves onto another phase of his plan for the jungle, abandoning the notion of an orchid garden in spite of the fact that the jungle is laden with indigenous orchid plants.

Whereas the Chiswick orchid grower is content with his solo project, the Commandant requires others to make his fantasy complete, and perhaps therein is the problem–after all, Sabir makes his greatest errors when he decides the fate of others. The hierarchy of the penal system breeds violence, corruption and exploitation, and those in power inevitably abuse their position with direct cruelty or neglectful disinterest. The inherent unhealthiness of hierarchal systems pervades the novel–in the memories of WWI, in the treatment of the prisoners and by the vicious  conflicts within the convict population.

In the case of some of the convicts, poverty brings a variation of enslavement on the  inevitable road to crime. In many ways, Sabir’s situation is far better in Camp Renee than his former life in France. Is he more or less “free” in the penal colony? Was Sabir better or worse off as a soldier in the trenches of WWI? What does being ‘free’  really mean? In spite of Sabir’s privileged position with the Commandant, the idea that “freedom”  exists outside of the borders of the penal colony gnaws away at Sabir until he becomes obsessed with escape and “inaction is no sort of option.” The notion of escape into the jungle is an insane venture, but in the treacherous echo chamber of ideas, the convicts begin to imagine that escape is possible. As the novel develops it becomes clear that we are all prisoners of our circumstances and confined by our characters and desires.

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The Treatment and the Cure by Peter Kocan

“You’re not feeling so cheerful now, with this talk of shock treatment. You start to think how it was all too good to be true. Now you’re finding out about the bad thing, the thing you knew had to be here though you didn’t know exactly what it would be. Shock treatment! It had a very bad ring to it. Especially the word ‘treatment.’ When they biffed you it was pretty bad, but at least you knew they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing. They knew it too. There was always a chance they’d get into trouble for biffing. Not much of a chance, but a chance. Also some screws didn’t agree with biffing, and they’d try to stop other screws who did it. But ‘treatment’ was different … they could do it with a clean conscience because they were trying to help you.

In 1966, nineteen-year-old Peter Kocan attempted to assassinate politician Arthur Calwell. Kocan failed and was subsequently tried and found guilty of attempted murder. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was first sent to Long Bay Correctional Centre and then transferred to the Criminally Insane Ward of the Morisset Psychiatric Hospital. The novel The Treatment and The Cure (originally published as two separate novellas) is an autobiographical but fictionalized account of Kocan’s experiences told through the eyes of nineteen-year-old Len Tarbutt.

When the novel begins, Len, confused and disoriented, is freshly transferred from a prison to a mental asylum. At first the hospital seems a great improvement over Long Bay prison, but Len very soon discovers that the insane asylum has its own minefields to be avoided at all costs: medications that reduce the powerless patient to a zombie-like state and electric shock ‘therapy’ administered by the forgetful but enthusiastic doctor known as “Electric Ned.”

Len mingles with an assortment of patients with a range of problems–murderers, child molesters, and even peeping Toms. Lonely and withdrawn, Len soon learns the asylum system–where the number one rule is not to draw attention to yourself. But surviving in this system is easier said than done–especially when bored and sadistic guards often set up scenarios in which patients are guaranteed to be dragged off to shock therapy. Len witnesses many patients who were functional reduced to cretinism by the over-eagerness of Electric Ned.

The very best parts of this excellent novel describe how Len tries desperately to appear normal and rational, yet this is a game in which the inmates don’t make the rules. Even Len’s attraction to poetry becomes suspect at one point as it causes him to read and meditate in solitude–an activity that’s largely frowned upon. Sometimes when inmates come to the attention of the guards and the doctors, they’re questioned and boxed in with circular logic, and there’s always shock treatment as the inevitable outcome awaiting them. For example, a particularly sadistic guard named Smiler continuously persecutes one inmate named Sam. When the inmate complains about the persecution, it’s becomes a signal that he’s ‘paranoid’:

“Everyone knows that mentally ill people think they’re being persecuted, so Sam is sealing his own fate by accusing Smiler. Smiler is pleased at how beautifully it’s working out.”

In spite of the dark subject matter, Kocan manages to write with a humour that’s refreshingly innocent. Kocan’s protagonist describes his environment by using the second person ‘you.’ This creates a numbing depersonalized distance between the narrator and his difficult experiences.

There are some wonderful passages that describe patients who appear cured, but they’ve simply learnt the game well enough to give the ‘authorities’ exactly what they want to hear. Zurka, for example, doesn’t seem like the sort of person who chopped up several passengers on a train, but that’s exactly what he did. After spending several years at the asylum, he appears ‘cured,’ but there are some instances in which Len retains nagging doubts about some of the inmates’ preparedness to be returned to society:

“Zurka is obviously very sorry and sad when he’s telling you about the last bit, about the train. You are quite sure he’d never do anything like that again. You’d bet your bones on it. If it was up to you, you’d let Zurka go to the open section. Yet when he’s talking about the psychiatrists who took all his money for pills and fees, or about his Polish countrymen who wouldn’t help him, you get a faint cold feeling of worry. There’s an edge in his voice that makes you think he’s spent the years here remembering the wrong they did him. It’s probably nothing. You’d still let him go to the open section if the decision was up to you. Yet, you’re glad somehow, that it’s someone else’s decision.”

Those who learn the rules and a superficial degree of conformity are judged ‘normal’–and as long as the inmates pay satisfactory attention to these rules, those in charge are happy with the inmates’ progress. It doesn’t seem to occur to those rule-makers that perhaps the inmates have learned to mimic the behaviour the doctors, nurses and guards want to see:

“You’re talking to Zurka about what he did to the people with his butcher’s chopper. He doesn’t mind talking about it now. He’s pretty sure he’s to be transferred to the open section and he wants to show that he understands about his crime and why he did it and that it was a dreadful act. The screws say that being able to talk calmly about your crime shows you’ve gained insight. Of course, you mustn’t talk about it too much, or too calmly, or they’ll say you’re dwelling on it or that you aren’t showing a healthy remorse.”

Strangely enough, some of Len’s hardest times are when he’s transferred out of maximum security. He falls under the ‘care’ of a sadistic nurse nicknamed Blue–a woman who torments some of those who fall under her jurisdiction. One of the ubiquitous ideas in the novel is the degree of mental illness inside the asylum. Whereas the patients are diagnosed and labeled with terms, some of the more sadistic employees are able to mentally torture inmates and twist reality with impunity to such a degree that the more fragile inmates escape the only way they can–through suicide.

There are escapes, the moments of joy, and small but powerful acts of human kindness, and the few people who reach out to Len makes all the difference in the world. There’s the overwhelming idea that no one really gets ‘cured’–even though that’s supposedly the goal held for all the inmates, and the system recreated here in these pages would most likely push anyone in a fragile mental state over the edge. Since this is basically a coming-of-age novel, this is not only a fictionalized memoir of asylum life but also an account of Len’s gradual ability to self-heal when given the fragments of opportunity.

All of the employees at the asylum inherently believe in different approaches to mental well-being. For example, the librarian believes reading provides healing, Electric Ned believes a cure can be found in shock treatment, and the therapy supervisor, Mr. Trowbridge believes that work is therapy. Although Trowbridge is a thoughtful man, one of Len’s few advocates, his dogmatic belief has little flexibility. To Trowbridge, the road to mental health is found through employment and functionality, and the ability to work is the measure of mental health. Similarly, the sadistic nurses and guards use the systems they embody (medications and rules) and create ways to subvert and sabotage any progress made towards mental health, and as in any closed system (school, for example) there are favourites and there are those who are picked on unmercifully. Institutional corruption is not included in this tale because for Len it doesn’t seem to exist; instead cruelty exists because of abusive power structures directed by banality and boredom. Cruelty is, therefore, the more devastating for its sheer disinterest.

On one last note, Kocan has published several books and has won awards for his fiction.

239 pages

Europa Editions

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