The Sinner and The Saint: A True Crime Book

Audio available here.

Genre fiction has often been sneered at, generally by the same people who hold “classics” as being the epitome of literary achievement. Who can forget the interview where Martin Amis implied he would only stoop so low to write children’s literature if he had a “brain injury.” This kind of elitism and snobbishness has always existed in the arts. However what the many who tightly cling to this sense of superiority do not realise is that it is only very recently that realism has crept into literature – think about Homer, Beowulf, Shakespeare with his Wyrd Sisters, Titania and Oberon. Human beings have always enjoyed a good does of the mysterious, miraculous, mythological and the unexplainable in our stories.

For those that read the types of books I cover in this blog, there is one book that while being called a classic is utterly and undeniably crime fiction. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which has set a standard for not just crime writing but also novel writing in turn influencing Kafka, Joyce and Woolf among many others. Dostoyevsky was part of the Golden Age of Russian Literature and is seen as a forerunner of many new movements. But for all it’s accolades and the other similar weighty tomes it will sit next to on a book shelf, at the centre of this book lies a crime, it’s motivation and it’s consequences, which also places it quite firmly as a piece of genre fiction.

In The Sinner and The Saint, Kevin Birmingham tracks Dostoyevsky’s writing of Crime and Punishment, and how his life shaped his thinking in the novel. While most Russian writers were writers because they came from nobility and could afford to be, Dostoyevsky was slightly different. He was born on the edge of nobility, and spent most of his life trying to pay off debts that could easily land him in jail because of a barbaric attitude to debt in that time. Indeed one does get the impression that if someone had taken young Dostoyevsky in hand and taught him to have more than a toddlers grasp of budgeting then it could be likely that his life would have been much easier, he may well have lived longer, and been able to be happier. It is a good a morality tale for not raising man-babies incapable of looking after themselves as any.

One of the most fascinating periods of Dostoyevsky’s dramatic life was his death sentence, which was commuted at the last minute to several years in Siberia. There he mixed with other political prisoners, but also criminals, murderers, rapists – the kind of people who someone like Dostoyevsky would have been unlikely to live side-by-side with in his cushioned but precarious life in St Petersburg. It is obvious that this, and his exposure to the many different political ideologies which floated around the middle classes of Russia was highly influential on writing Crime and Punishment, but Birmingham deftly weaves another tale into this story, that of Pierre Francois Lacenaire.

Lacenaire was a celebrity criminal, a kind of proto-Bundy who after his arrest for murder, became infamous across Europe for not only his crimes, but his personality. He was good looking, educated, wrote poetry from his cell, mused on philosophies of the time, and was most of all, charming and flamboyant – the opposite of the prevailing idea of a criminal at the time. The public could not get enough of him. Like Dostoyevsky’s protagonist Roskolinkov, Lancenaire killed for money, but got little, and killed people from the underbelly of society – giving them both the illusion of some kind of moral superiority or deep philosophical knowledge.

Birmingham parallels the writing of Crime and Punishment with Lancenaire’s life, crimes and death to emphasise it’s influence of the work. But while both Dostoyevsky and Lancenair both die (I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to know they are both not still alive), the book they have midwifed into the world continues to exist. The Sinner and the Saint seams to end on a cliff edge, just as Crime and Punishment is destined itself to start it’s life, and what will it do? How will it fare in the world without the people who both donated their DNA, even if one was an unaware of what they inspired?

It felt to me like Birmingham finished this book just a little too soon, and more would have been advisable after the death of the author, to turn it into the biography of a book. To trace how it interacted with cultures and readers around the world and through time. What did Crime and Punishment do to readers, what did readers do back? In the Sinner And The Saint, we have a prequal, because while the stories of Dostoyevsky and Lacenaire are interesting they created something bigger than themselves, and at the moment, Birmingham has only given us a glimps of this.

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