Book of the week: The Sinner and the Saint by Kevin Birmingham

Kevin Birmingham explores Fyodor Dostoevsky’s inspiration for Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1861
Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1861
(Image credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In his 2014 debut, The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham told the gripping story of how “a drunken night in a Dublin pub” inspired James Joyce to write Ulysses, said Boris Fishman in The New York Times. In his new book, Birmingham “does it again” – this time giving “the Ulysses treatment” to Crime and Punishment.

Birmingham shows how Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel – about a double murder committed by a former student named Raskolnikov – was partly inspired by a real-life murderer: the French poet Pierre-François Lacenaire, who in 1834 stabbed to death a convicted thief and his widowed mother. (Later the same day, he attended a comedy show. “That was a great day for me,” he would recall.)

The case became the talk of Paris. Reading about it nearly three decades later, Dostoevsky found Lacenaire to be “enigmatic, frightening and gripping” – and used him as a model for Raskolnikov. Braiding the stories of the two together, Birmingham has written a “magisterially immersive, novelistic account” of how a masterpiece of Russian literature came to be written.

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Birmingham’s account also reveals some striking parallels between the lives of Lacenaire and Dostoevsky, said Anna Aslanyan in The Spectator. Both writers were from wealthy backgrounds, but fell into poverty in adulthood. Both were incarcerated for significant periods: Lacenaire’s petty thieving landed him in prison, while Dostoevsky’s youthful radicalism led to a ten-year exile in Siberia. (While there, he met numerous murderers, and recorded his observations in a secret diary.)

Writing The Sinner and the Saint can’t have been easy – the “sheer weight of sources” must have been overwhelming – but Birmingham shifts the “historical layers with seeming ease”. The result is a book that “works on several levels: as a historical study, a work of literary criticism and, gratifyingly, a double thriller”.

Crime and Punishment is often described as a “whydunnit”, said Alex Christofi in The Guardian: Raskolnikov commits his crime near the start of the book, and it’s never entirely clear what drives him to it. But for modern readers, another mystery “hovers behind the novel” – how can we ever account for a work of genius like that, which appears to have “sprung into the world fully formed”?

In exploring how Dostoevsky’s masterpiece came to life, Birmingham goes a long way to answering that question. This is “not just a fitting tribute to one of the great works of literature, but a dazzling literary detective story in its own right”.

Allen Lane 432pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

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