Thursday, August 23, 2012

Fyodor Writes A Crime Novel

I'm a bit past the 1/3 mark of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov. I am not going to talk about it in terms of themes or character or even prose style; I'm going to talk about it in terms of it being a crime novel, and how Dostoyevsky is building the crimey aspects of the plot.

Sure, the murder isn't reported until just after the halfway point in the novel, when, after a night of drinking, Dmitri Karamazov is awakened by the police and charged with the murder of Fyodor Karamazov. Fyodor is Dmitri's father. The reader is convinced, of course, that Dmitri is the murderer and the second half of the book, the investigation of the crime and Dmitri's subsequent trial, seem unnecessary. We know who done it, right? How do we know?

Dostoyevski spends the first couple of chapters establishing Fyodor as a truly repellent figure. It's a commonplace in crime novels that the stiff isn't a lovable old chunk of honey, you know. The reader has to accept the victim's departure early on in the book, which means that the writer can't let the reader fall in love with He Who Is About To Be a Piece of Evidence. Dostoyevsky accomplishes this handily, making Fyodor an unforgettable piece of work.

The next thing Dostoyevsky does is aim Dmitri at Fyodor, setting up the expectation that Dmitri is the Most Likely Murderer. Dmitri and Fyodor fight over money (Fyodor has it, Dmitri doesn't; Dmitri is a spendthrift and has in fact gone into debt to his father by the age of 28), they fight over a woman (Grushenka, who's no angel and who is playing both men for fools), and then Dmitri, about a quarter of the way into the novel, assaults Fyodor in the family home, in front of the younger two Karamazov brothers (Ivan and Alexei) and the cook (Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son of Fyodor). Plenty of witnesses to this attack on poor Fyodor, who wears a bright red bandage on his head the next day (he thinks that red looks more flattering than white).

Fyodor takes to barricading himself into the house at night, allegedly to protect himself from Dmitri (Probably, however, this "fortress of solitude" act is really all just more of Fyodor's dramatics; he loves his drama but I wasn't going to talk about character, was I?). Fyodor has gone so far as to set up with Smerdyakov a system of secret knocks: five knocks means that Grushenka has come to visit and Fyodor should unlock the door; three knocks means that Smerdyakov is at the door (with supper or whatever) and Fyodor should let him in. Smerdyakov tells Ivan that Dmitri has "found out" about the system of secret knocks and can trick Fyodor into letting him into the house.

Smerdyakov then tells Ivan that Dmitri knows about a package containing 3,000 rubles which sits in Fyodor's bedroom, waiting for Grushenka. Dmitri could really use that 3,000 rubles. According to Smerdyakov, Dmitri will inevitably trick his way into the house, steal the money and likely attempt to murder Fyodor. Dmitri has nearly confessed this already in front of the reader, so we believe Smerdyakov. Smerdyakov tells Ivan his plan to excuse himself from the coming violence by faking an epileptic fit (Smerdyakov has been having fits his entire life) and taking to his bed for the next couple of days. Smerdyakov is careful, of course, to put this so that Ivan figures out that Smerdyakov will be faking, but Smerdyakov never explicitly admits as much. Smerdyakov (his first name is Pavel) is careful.

And he fakes his fit, apparently falling down the basement stairs and so is carried off to the servants' house next to the main house. Fyodor continues to drink and act like a buffoon, awaiting an evening visit from Grushenka. His valet, Grigory, turns up sick so the only servant about the place is Grigory's elderly wife. Dmitri continues to drink, pursue too many women and need money. The police show up one morning and arrest Dmitri for Fyodor's murder. Who is surprised by any of this? Dostoyevsky has built up this story very carefully, and amid all of the manic speechifying and running to-and-fro of all the characters, the plot has assembled to create Dmitri's means, motive and opportunity for parricide.

There are of course several other stories going on in The Brothers Karamazov, but those stories don't directly influence the crime story so I ignore them here. Tomorrow, maybe, I'll talk about how Dostoyevsky handles the events of the day of the murder.

A lot of this writing is guesswork on my part, assuming that there is some mystery behind Fyodor's murder. I have never read the second half of this novel so I don't know for sure what happens, but I have my doubts and suspicions and Dostoyevsky was a clever guy. So we'll see. Nobody spoil it for me ("It was the monk! He faked his death and then killed the father!") or I shall be quite vexed. I'm joking. I'm pretty sure at this point that the perp is Pavel. Clearly he's doing all this work with Ivan in an attempt to frame Dmitri.


  1. Anyway, what I think I'm getting at here is that despite all the claims about the messiness and disorganization of Dostoyevsky's novels--especially of Brothers Karamazovy--Dostoyevsky has built a solid, well-formed plot to prop up the disorganized characters and the long thematic sections about good vs evil. My suspicion is that the other stories also have well-formed plots, carefully exposited by the author and then camoflaged by his frenzied stage directions and breathless dialogue.

  2. This is still one I need to pick up again. It's on my shelf, waiting. My favorite is still Crime & Punishment, but I think that's because it was the first Russian novel I ever read.

  3. My first Russian novel was War and Peace. The thing about Dostoyevski, and especially BK, is that there's a lot of stuff going on at once, a lot of different layers of theme and plot and it all seems disorganized and messy but really it's just complex. I think that some respectable current writers (Byatt, Rushdie, Graham Swift and the like) have been heavily influenced by Dostoyevski but nobody calls them messy or disorganized. They just get called postmodern.

  4. I agree with that assessment. I like the messiness of Dostoyevsky. I love rolling around in all of it , not even caring if it goes anywhere or not. But then it does, and I gut up and brush myself off and love that I got lost for a bit.