The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece

Penguin Pr Nov. 2021. 432p. ISBN 9781594206306. $30. LIT
Having endured exile to Siberia, multiple familial deaths, and epileptic seizures, Dostoevsky was intimately familiar with tragedy, pain, and darker impulses (particularly a gambling addiction that threatened his very livelihood), writes Birmingham (literature, Harvard; The Most Dangerous Book). Drawing on his life, as well as the life of the infamous Parisian murderer Pierre François Lacenaire, Dostoevsky frantically wrote what would become one of his greatest works, Crime and Punishment. Birmingham’s account of Crime and Punishment’s conception follows Dostoevsky, Lacenaire, and the novel’s protagonist Raskolnikov through 1830s Paris and 1860s Wiesbaden. While Lacenaire had immense influence on the characterization of Raskolnikov, Birmingham demonstrates that the character also impacted Dostoevsky, for better or worse. This true tale of self-consciousness forces readers to consider whether a person’s intentions matters or if their actions should define them. Birmingham loudly proclaims Dostoevsky’s triumph against the evil of his creation Raskolnikov while pushing readers to consider the impact of fiction itself.
VERDICT Equal parts biography, literary analysis, and true crime, Birmingham’s book entrances and entertains from the first page.
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