The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Book Review

To the Depths and Back

Macabre, morbid, and mordant.

Christopher Sandford

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky (detail), 1922, by František Foltýn (1891–1976); private collection; Album/Alamy Stock Photo.

Kevin Birmingham prefaces his account of the tortured progress of the writing of Crime and Punishment with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s terse summation of his novel’s plot: “There’s an evil spirit here.” It’s a statement Birmingham invites us to ponder throughout his masterly book. Can we be disturbed but not necessarily repulsed by the actions of a particularly heinous criminal? Might such a character actually engage our sympathies? In The Sinner and the Saint, Birmingham sets himself the task of revealing the soul of an author, shattered and nearly sunk by the cumulative blows of life, struggling to get close to a murderer’s mind—and he succeeds brilliantly.

Shortly after dawn on the morning of Saturday, December 22, 1849, the twenty-eight-year-old Dostoevsky stood on a black-draped scaffold erected on the drilling ground at Semyonovsky Square in his native St. Petersburg, and prepared to die at the hands of a firing squad. It was a cold, overcast, Russian winter day, with flakes of snow falling at the condemned man’s feet. Dostoevsky was bound to a stake between two other men, a biblical trinity he would have recognized, with nine more prisoners awaiting their turn in the wings. All of them had been convicted of what the presiding court called a “conspiracy of ideas” to undermine the tsarist regime. On the frozen ground behind the scaffold stood a row of carts laden with twelve empty coffins.

A black-robed priest mounted the scaffold and faced the first group of prisoners at the stake. He quoted Romans 6: “The wages of sin is death.” Yet by acknowledging their sins, the condemned could still hope to inherit eternal life. All three of the bound men silently kissed the priest’s cross when it was offered to them. It’s said that Dostoevsky remained calm, remarking to the man next to him on the scaffold that he had recently read Le dernier jour d’un condamné, Victor Hugo’s novel about a criminal facing the guillotine who believes that in the end Christ’s law will replace that of man. Perhaps it was one of those timeless moments, when eternity intrudes into the world and we catch a glimpse of what the life of man was meant to be and, by the grace of God, may yet be.

There was a drumroll. No fewer than forty-five soldiers, in three rows of fifteen, shuffled into position in front of the scaffold, their rifles cocked. Their commanding officer raised his sword as a signal for them to take aim. And at that precise moment, with the condemned men suspended between life and death, a carriage turned the corner and raced onto the cobbled square, a uniformed arm frantically waving a white cloth from the window. The firing squad held its position as a deep-chested man in military braid leapt down from the coach and ran to the presiding officer with a sealed envelope. It contained a slip of paper bearing the news that the condemned men had been reprieved by gracious order of the tsar. They would instead merely be sent into internal exile. It later became known that the whole spectacle at Semyonovsky Square had been a piece of macabre theater. The mock execution was in fact part of the men’s punishment. One of the three individuals who had been tied to the stake that morning went permanently insane. One was never heard from again. The third went on to write Crime and Punishment.

The ghoulish charade in the drill square was not quite the end of Dostoevsky’s ordeal. He spent the next four years doing hard labor at a prison camp in Siberia: “In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth an inch thick.… We were packed like herrings in a barrel. There was no room to turn around. We behaved like pigs.”

It’s not necessary to descend into the briar patch of psychiatry to conclude that Dostoevsky’s intimate familiarity with the cycle of man’s suffering and grace was to become a principal source of his novels. It is understandable if his work seems to be a touch on the somber side as a result. A young artist exposed to the spectacle of emaciated bodies and human degradation doesn’t have the same instincts as one weaned on the products of Walt Disney. Crime of various sorts is clearly a theme, or obsession, of the Dostoevsky canon. But, as Birmingham demonstrates, what raises Dostoevsky from the level of mere nineteenth-century horror writer is his ability to tease out the moral complexities of each case, and even on occasion to identify with the offender.

In 1863, some years after Dostoevsky’s release, his search for material to satisfy his lifelong fascination with the human spirit under duress led him to an unusually vivid subject: the French poet-murderer Pierre François Lacenaire, a conspicuous incarnation of evil even in a city such as mid-nineteenth century Paris, a soiled, sad place whose inhabitants habitually murdered, stole, lied, and cheated as they slithered around in a sea of immorality. It seemed that the various outrages of that time in Europe were all absurdly and graphically gory, the motivations behind them often low, and the cast of characters uniformly sordid and grotesque. Compared to the farrago of horrors Dostoevsky and his generation read about or personally experienced on a daily basis, much of today’s high-profile crime seems as innocuous and bloodless as the case of a purloined cow-creamer in one of the stories of P.G. Wodehouse.

Even so, Lacenaire was something special. The well-educated son of a wealthy merchant, he sparks not just our terror, but our fascination. We can glimpse in his offense some of the same elements found in the equally wanton slaying by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb of their teenaged acquaintance Bobby Franks in 1920s Chicago, or any other such gratuitous act of butchery. One cold night in December 1834, the thirty-one-year-old Lacenaire, accompanied by his ax-wielding henchman Victor Avril, knocked on the door of an apartment in the western suburbs of Paris where a business associate named Jean-François Chardon lived with his invalid widowed mother. After Chardon admitted his callers, words were exchanged, and suddenly Avril lunged at their host and began strangling him with his bare hands. Lacenaire finished off Chardon with a carving knife, took Avril’s ax, entered the back bedroom where Chardon’s mother helplessly lay, and repeatedly hacked her about the face and eyes until his blade snapped.

After leaving the scene of this slaughter, Lacenaire treated himself to a Turkish bath and a lavish dinner, which were followed with a visit to the Théâtre des Variétés, where he enjoyed a comedy show. As Birmingham relates, Lacenaire later remarked that it was “a great day for me.” When asked at his trial what he would do with a dead body, he whistled cheerfully and suggested that he would cook it in a stew and eat it. “Killing without remorse is the greatest happiness,” he declared.

The two murderers went to the guillotine, Avril the first by a few minutes, in January 1836. Lacenaire dressed for the occasion in an elegant powder-blue frock coat that showcased his dark curly hair and flashing black eyes. He was composed to the last. The apparatus of the machine got stuck halfway down and had to be slowly wound back into position for a second attempt. As it finally descended for the mortal blow, Lacenaire managed to twist his head around so that he could watch as the blade plummeted toward his neck. There was a faint but discernible smile on the lips of his severed head, it was later reported.

An artistic fascination with the most depraved of man’s lower instincts has of course been a wellspring of material for everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King. From time to time, a writer may even come to personally interest himself in the welfare of a notorious criminal. There was the celebrated case of Truman Capote and the protagonists of his 1966 “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, for instance, or, some fifteen years later, that of Norman Mailer and the literate murderer Jack Abbott. Partly due to Mailer’s lobbying, Abbott was paroled from prison, and promptly killed again.

Dostoevsky’s own fixation on Lacenaire and his crime, which he declared “more exciting than all possible fiction,” is the focus of Birmingham’s consistently immersing The Sinner and the Saint. The Lacenaire who emerges from these pages is a subtle, ambiguous, sometimes insidiously appealing challenger to a corrupt established order. “I come to preach the religion of fear to the elite,” he announced at his trial, sounding a bit like a prototype Charles Manson. Almost anyone could write a gripping account of Lacenaire’s particular offense, but it took a writer of Dostoevsky’s gifts, not to mention of his experience in Semyonovosky Square, to painstakingly lead his readers on a course between the extremes of revulsion and fascination. What really interested Dostoevsky, and interests us, is the morality of crime, and how people can come to rationalize even the most depraved homicidal frenzy. He’s an author who takes risks, makes us both laugh and wince, and (depending on the translator’s art) writes like an angel with a devilish sense of humor.

Kevin Birmingham makes a well-informed guide to the macabre events in Paris, and to the part they played in the genesis of Crime and Punishment thirty years later. He’s at his best when he describes the acutely difficult birth pangs of Dostoevsky’s novel, with its oddly familiar-sounding account of how Raskolnikov, a tortured law school dropout, comes to commit a double ax-murder. Writing rapidly, to stave off the creditors literally banging at his door, Dostoevsky abandoned his original ninety-page first-person narrative for what he called the “invisible but omniscient” third-person rumination on man’s capacity for evil that we know today. As Birmingham asks, “Why not peer over Raskolnikov’s shoulder while he’s face to face with his stupid, deaf, sick, greedy victim, waiting for his moment?”

Of course, Dostoevsky did more in Crime and Punishment than merely rehearse the ghastly tale of Pierre François Lacenaire. The pervasive political turbulence of mid-nineteenth century Russia, in particular the radical fervor that almost destroyed the author’s life, also fed the creative process. Birmingham is an elegant writer, and there are moments in The Sinner and the Saint when we seem to be watching cinematic episodes of Dostoevsky’s life as he wrestles with debt, failing health, family tragedy, police harassment, and yet more debt to produce what surely remains the quintessential Russian murder-morality tale.

“Nothing of this kind has yet been written,” Dostoevsky exhaustedly announced on completing his novel. “I guarantee its originality, and also its power to seize the reader.” Birmingham may not quite share his subject’s dark genius for characterization, but in its way The Sinner and the Saint is equally as gripping in its vivacious and perceptive account of literary creation.