In our contemporary debates about policing, a venerable Russian writer weighs in
Blood Simple, the title of the Coen brothers’ inaugural film, is detective code for the ways criminals become unhinged during or after the commission of violent acts. Dashiell Hammett, the early-twentieth-century author of hard-boiled detective stories such as The Maltese Falcon, seems to be the proximate source for the Coen brothers, but one can find all sorts of classical literary sources for this notion, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The latter contains the most sustained psychological analysis of the way a crime undoes its perpetrator. It also provides insight for us in our ongoing debates over crime, policing, and violence.
Crime and Punishment’s focus is on Raskolnikov, a destitute writer who commits murder partly out of need for money and partly to test his theory concerning the superman—one who stands beyond good and evil and is thus not subject to the strictures of conventional morality. The book is an unconventional murder mystery. It seeks a solution not to the question of who committed the homicide but instead whether and how he will be caught and, more crucially, what the impact of the deed on his own soul will be.
As unlikely as it might seem for a Russian author who composed long books about big ideas, Dostoevsky has had a significant effect on American culture. Dostoevsky, whose life and work is being celebrated internationally this fall on the 200th anniversary of his birth, has influenced the novels of African American writers such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, as well as the films of Woody Allen.
Perhaps his most surprising influence has been on mainstream American TV, and specifically the popular detective series Columbo, starring Peter Falk—a series whose heyday was 1971-1978 but which ran on and off from 1968-2003. The creators of the Columbo character, playwrights William Link and Richard Levinson, were fans of the book and especially of the character Porfiry, the lead detective in the investigation of the murder committed by Raskolnikov. A seemingly bumbling but actually brilliant investigator, Porfiry uses indirection and surprise to keep the suspect off balance. From Dostoevsky’s novel the creators of Columbo took not only their lead character but also the show’s basic plot structure. Instead of beginning with a victim and then devoting the rest of the plot to the investigator’s attempt to identify the criminal, the audience knows from the beginning who the criminal is. The drama concerns the investigative methods deployed to trap the culprit. Like Crime and Punishment, Columbo is not a “whodunnit” but a “howcatchem.”
In the wake of America’s recent concern about police violence, Columbo has received renewed attention as an alternative model to the common depiction of police as needing to exercise force in order to solve cases. Columbo never brandishes a gun; rather, he employs intelligence. The criminals in the series tend to be the self-satisfied rich rather than the poor. Columbo uses the perpetrators’ pride and moral blindness, their sense of their own intellectual superiority and invulnerability, against them.
At the time Dostoevsky composed Crime and Punishment, Western theories about crime, which eliminated personal responsibility in favor of a view that would root crime in environmental circumstances, were circulating in Russia. Dostoevsky was skeptical of these theories because they deprived the truly guilty of the opportunity for moral and spiritual transformation through owning up to evil deeds. But he, or at least his character Porfiry, states explicitly that “environment means a great deal” in crime. The novel thus avoids the two extremes that seem to dominate American conversation about the roots of crime: either personal responsibility or environmental causes. Human persons, perhaps especially those who transgress laws, are “multifarious,” as Porfiry observes.
Acting on the theory of the superman, Raskolnikov turns himself into a living test case of that theory. He spends much of this time after the murder going between two other characters in the novel: Sonia, who represents Christian sacrificial love and possibility of redemption, and Svidrigailov, a despairing nihilist. The option seems to be a stark either/or. But it is the civil servant Porfiry who helps him come to his senses—helps him realize not only that he failed to commit the perfect crime but also that he had “failed to reckon with his own nature.”
Dostoevsky’s works, particularly Crime and Punishment, have often been staples of prison education programs. But the wisdom of Porfiry is relevant not so much to the incarcerated as to those who prosecute and administer justice. In ways we often find difficult, Porfiry combines the pursuit of justice with a prudential sense of the complex causes and roots of crime, aiming for the rehabilitation and even redemption of the suspect. Who could argue against that?
Thomas Hibbs is J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Professor of Philosophy and Dean Emeritus at Baylor University