The construction of authority in early Russian crime fiction

In the fourth and final CamCREES seminar of the Michaelmas term, Professor Claire Whitehead of St Andrews University discussed Russian crime fiction from the 19th and early 20th century.  These bibliographical notes for the talk go on to look at holdings of Russian crime fiction, both early and modern, in the University Library.


Front cover of Zapiski sledovatelia by N.P. Timofeev (S236.c.87.1)

Professor Whitehead gave a fascinating talk on the work she is doing for her current project on the poetics of early Russian crime fiction.  She explored several particularly notable features in the Russian genre.  The mystery, for example, is not necessarily in the identification of the criminal (the standard whodunit) – more often than not, the chase is to establish the reason for the crime.  Similarly, early Russian crime writers showed a preference for writing the narrative from the point of view of the investigator: a device often shunned by writers elsewhere because it can make the maintenance of suspense challenging.  In discussing the issue of authority, Professor Whitehead looked at the narrator-investigators in terms of the authority given to them through their identity in society as representatives of the law and the authority they build through their trustworthiness and effectiveness as narrators.

While modern Russian crime fiction is a major phenomenon in Russia today, many of its early antecedents are barely known there now.  Two names in the talk, however, count among Russia’s literary classics – Dostoevskii , whose Prestuplenie i nakazanie (Crime and punishment) is the most obvious early Russian detective novel, and Chekhov, whose stories Shvedskaia spichka (Swedish match) and Drama na okhote (Drama on the hunt) Professor Whitehead also mentioned.

Of the less well known authors Professor Whitehead referred to in her talk, few are currently represented in the University Library’s collections.  The likes of Petr Stepanov and Semen Panov are not to be found, and it seems that current publishers have little appetite for reprinting their work.  Some internet purchases made in the light of the CamCREES seminar, however, will see the Library’s early Russian crime fiction holdings increase to some degree in due course.  Chto pobudilo k ubiistvu? (What prompted murder?) by Aleksandr Shkliarevskii and two more books featuring his work alongside that of similar authors are now on order, as is Ostrog i zhizn’ (Prison and life) by Nikolai Sokolovskii – both writers mentioned by Professor Whitehead.  This page will be updated with their details when the books have arrived and been catalogued.

As well as Chekhov and Dostoevskii, though, two of the authors from the talk are already represented in the Library.  Nikolai Timofeev’s book Zapiski sledovatelia (Notes of an investigator; S236.c.87.1) is shown in the picture, a slightly dog-earred paperback from 1872.  Readers will note that his name heading in the catalogue record is given as Timofieev, reflecting the Russian orthography of the time; this is standard practice for authors who were published predominantly in that period.  A cross-reference in the index from the modern spelling of his name will be added, via the Library of Congress authority file, in due course.

The other author already to be found in the Library is Andrei Zarin, some of whose detective fiction is contained in the book Ivan Putilin, genii russkogo syska (Ivan Putilin, the genius of Russian investigation; 757:26.d.200.138).  The 2002 book features stories by two writers (four by Zarin and six by a Roman Andropov, who used the pseudonym Roman Dobryi) based on the real-life detective Ivan Putilin.

Modern Russian crime fiction is more evenly represented in the University Library.  The Russian writer probably best known in the English-speaking world is Boris Akunin (Grigorii Chkhartishvili, who publishes under both names), whose main series – featuring the detective Erast Fandorin and set, in fact, in pre-revolutionary Russia – has been translated into English.  A full list of Akunin’s books already in the catalogue can be reached here.  At the time of writing, there are over 40 listed, predominantly in Russian.  Lists of books by Aleksandra Marinina, another hugely popular writer in Russia, can be found here.

The Prokhorov Fund’s Nos (Nose) literary prize is awarded annually.  This year saw the one-off addition of the prize Inspektor Nos (Inspector Nose), for Russian detective fiction published since the end of the Soviet Union.  Given the significance of the genre and the >20-year period covered, we have bought as many of the 33 long-listed titles (which include work by Akunin and Marinina) as possible.  The winning book was Doznavatel’ by Margarita Khemlin (The investigator; C203.d.998).

The CamCREES bibliographical notes aim to link Cambridge library resources with the fortnightly seminars hosted by CamCREES (the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies) in the Michaelmas and Lent terms of each academic year.  Each set of notes starts by looking at the specifics of a seminar and then goes on to explore related research tips and library issues.  The CamCREES bibliographical notes were introduced in February 2011 on the University Library’s Slavonic webpages, where all earlier notes can be found.

Mel Bach

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