In most dramatic fiction, threat drives action – from the invading French army in Tolstoy’s War and Peace to the flesh-eating zombies in television’s The Walking Dead.
This explains the abundance of psychopathic killers in TV drama. They guarantee action (usually by the police) in response to an immediate and recognisable threat. Psychopaths are the dramatic equivalent of wok-ready noodles – just add a few other random ingredients, heat and serve. And there is no need for much of a motive, because viewers tacitly accept that a psycho kills for kicks.
Back in 1866, the Russian author Dostoyevsky played a more skilful and creative game when writing his novel Crime and Punishment. Yes, there is an axe-murderer to be caught, but one who, as the reader realises quickly, is almost certain not to repeat his crime (much more likely in fact to throw himself off a bridge). So the staple tension-provider of 20th and 21st century crime fiction – will the police close in before he kills again – is absent.
This absence of threat is what makes Crime and Punishment one of the cleverest and most subtle thrillers ever written. Dostoyevsky sustains a febrile mood of paranoia and dread throughout the novel without any obvious apparatus of terror; all the drama takes place inside the killer’s head.
The murderer, Raskolnikov, is a poor student who kills on a whim, inspired chiefly by the need to assert a misplaced sense of his own intellectual and moral superiority (a warped prototype for Nietzsche’s Übermensch?). His delusions stem from a vague adherence to nihilism, which gained traction in Russia among young people in the mid-19th Century and was popularised by the character Bazarov in Turgenev’s novella Fathers and Sons (1862). However, where Bazarov is a dashing figure, popular with women, Raskolnikov is an introverted and self-obsessed loner.
This is a variation on a type familiar in other novels by Dostoyevsky. These are men (and sometimes women) tormented by fierce, feverish impulses that drive them to commit strange and irrational acts, and then to suffer agonising remorse, made worse by paranoia.
There is something of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd (1840) in Raskolnikov: “the type and genius of deep crime … ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense – of supreme despair”.
Albert Hitchcock is said to have admired Crime and Punishment, and the tension in the novel is certainly familiar to fans of Hitchcock. It lies not in what we know of the facts of the crime but in the criminal’s tortured mental state after the event and as the net slowly closes in. It is a net entirely of Raskolnikov’s own making. Although initially there is no evidence against him, he implicates himself by blundering around St Petersburg in the days after the murder and attracting the attention of the police.
As a psychological thriller Crime and Punishment is a seminal work of genius, despite its loose structure and strange and improbable events. Compare and contrast with Hitchcock’s film Vertigo. In both cases the plot has elements that seem individually insignificant, even ludicrous, but which combine brilliantly to convey terror and despair. Who needs flesh-eating zombies when you have existential angst to crank up the tension?