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It was one of a series of volumes packed with lurid tales about everything from legendary thieves to real-life cannibals, from political assassins to the killers of lovers or priests. Nearly every story included detailed illustrations.
Maybe that’s what caught Fyodor Dostoevsky’s eye: a lead illustration of an old woman cowering in terror in her bed as a slender man in a frock coat—his top hat resting beside him—wields his sharpened weapon over his head just before he plunges it into her face. His accomplice finishes off another victim with an ax.
The man in the foreground is Frenchman Pierre François Lacenaire, depicted in the heat of his 1834 crime spree. Certain descriptive phrases in the accompanying story jumped out: “vague idealism” … “ferocious materialism” … “sickly melancholy” … “a double existence.” Lacenaire was a poet from a bankrupt bourgeois family, an elegant man with a “fresh, young face,” the article noted, and a “flirty little moustache.”
This was the worst type of true crime story. It romanticized the murderer, doted on his courtroom theatrics, and barely glanced at his implicitly culpable victims—a con man of “infamous habits” (contemporary code for a man who consorted with other men) and the con man’s widowed mother, who presumably condoned her son’s behavior. The story exploited rumor and innuendo. It was crude, sensationalist, and irredeemable. Dostoevsky loved it.
The intersection of Dostoevsky’s life and the life of Lacenaire, which I chronicle in my new book, The Sinner and the Saint, was a crucial moment in the history of the novel. In 1861, Dostoevsky was looking for material for a magazine he was starting called Vremya, and Lacenaire’s story, which Dostoevsky helped translate into Russian for the publication, fit perfectly.* Lacenaire “is a remarkable personality, enigmatic, frightening, and gripping,” he told his subscribers in a note. Stories like his are “more exciting than all possible novels because they light up the dark sides of the human soul that art does not like to approach.” Violence was acceptable in novels, but senseless, wanton violence seemed too unruly for art.
Dostoevsky was nevertheless a connoisseur of material like this. For years, he had gotten his true crime stories straight from the criminals who slept beside him in a Siberian labor camp, where he was imprisoned for his vocal opposition to the institution of serfdom. There was the soldier who killed his commanding officer with his bayonet and the man who placed his father’s head on a pillow after decapitating him. There was a serial killer who laughed at Dostoevsky’s probing questions, who pitied the young novelist as if he were just a naïve little boy.
Twenty-first century true crime fans cite many reasonable justifications for consuming stories of violence perpetrated against people whose family members may still be grieving: the desire to solve the crimes, or to understand the justice system, or to highlight its failures, or to learn how to keep yourself safe, or to cope with the fear of violence.
Dostoevsky bothered with none of this. He wanted to know what it felt like to murder someone. The stated motives, after all, always seemed superficial. Some killed for money or revenge, while others did it over a rude glance or a trifle, but they all rested upon some dark foundation—an impulse. After years of probing his Siberian prison mates and scouring the pages of French and Russian periodicals, Dostoevsky began to imagine the feeling of homicide as a convulsion or a reckless binge, or like leaping off a high tower to feel truly alive for one split second. There was no perfect metaphor, really, but his unsettling conclusion was that murder felt like “the most boundless and unbridled freedom.”
What was most revelatory about Lacenaire was neither the man himself nor his crime spree but the fact that Paris was so captivated by him. He had somehow touched that deep nerve of perverse freedom that runs through everyone. “I kill a man as I drink a glass of wine,” he told visitors who flocked to his prison cell.
Lacenaire’s case inspired one of the earliest true crime fandoms. Fashionable women filled the front rows at his trial. Interviewers devoured his opinions about everything from Christianity to the proper disposal of corpses (a stew is involved). Reporters dug up anecdotes from his childhood and printed his old writings. Admirers throughout France sent him letters and gifts—pâté, wine, fine chocolate. One fan wrote him poetry. Another begged for his autograph. After his beheading, crowds visited a wax likeness of Lacenaire that featured his actual hair, and his mummified hand made the rounds in literary Paris. Generations of French writers were inspired, captivated, or otherwise taken in—Balzac, Hugo, and Baudelaire; Flaubert, Camus, and Foucault.
French writers no doubt pored over Lacenaire’s memoirs, which he dashed off in the weeks before he was guillotined. His grand scheme included robbing banks by luring collection clerks into darkened apartments, killing them, and taking whatever cash and bank notes they carried in their satchels. He failed repeatedly, but his memoirs succeeded in casting his crimes as an attack on an unjust society: “I come to preach the religion of fear to the rich, for the religion of love has no power over their hearts.” The most alluring lies make you feel free and powerful just by believing them.
In 1865, Dostoevsky began using his insights into Paris’ celebrity murderer—and murderers in general—to form the basis of a masterpiece: Crime and Punishment. A handsome young intellectual named Raskolnikov kills a pawnbroker with an ax. Would anyone miss the old crone? She was cruel to her own sister (Raskolnikov kills the sister too, unfortunately), and she spent her life profiting from other people’s misfortunes, charging predatory interest to the people who could least afford it. The stolen loot, he reasons, could be used for benevolent purposes, Robin Hood–style.
Raskolnikov offers readers various philosophical defenses for his actions, but if you finish the novel thinking he kills for ideological purposes, then he has succeeded in eluding your capture. The truth is that he murders for the liberating thrill of pure destruction. He kills, as he eventually admits, “quite simply to take the whole thing by the tail and to whisk it off to the devil.”
The story is told from the murderer’s perspective. We follow Raskolnikov up the darkened stairwell and watch the blood spill out of the pawnbroker’s shattered skull. The murder scene’s intensity is so powerful it turns surreal. Raskolnikov is rifling through the pawnbroker’s belongings when he suddenly stops, runs back to her body, bends down to examine it closely, and reaches out to touch the wound. Did it really happen? Our shoulders tense when we hear people pounding on the apartment door while Raskolnikov is still inside with the corpses—and we haven’t yet finished Part 1.
Guilt is the engine that drives the novel forward—not remorse, mind you (Raskolnikov never feels sorrow for the women he has killed), but the fear of being discovered. Did he leave any clues? Is there a witness? Is he keeping his story straight? The police inspector in this crime story is a fearful creature, uncannily perceptive and uncomfortably intimate—when he blinks, Raskolnikov notices, he seems to wink. “He knows.”
Should you feel guilty for consuming true crime? Of course you should. One of Dostoevsky’s great themes is that to be human is to be drawn to the wholesale destruction of ourselves and others (the distinction between these two is often indistinguishable). You are guilty, Dostoevsky tells us. You will be caught. You want to be caught.
By Kevin Birmingham. Penguin Press.
And if you make money from true crime—as a writer or a publisher or a podcaster—you, too, are profiting from other people’s misfortunes. Crime and Punishment is fiction, of course, but when Dostoevsky wrote his proposal for Crime and Punishment—desperate for an advance after a disastrous binge at the roulette tables—he tried to sell his story to his eventual publisher by comparing it to similar cases making headlines: a Moscow student who murdered a postman, a seminarian who murdered a girl before enjoying a fine breakfast. Some readers became physically ill when they read Dostoevsky’s murder scene. Others accused the novelist of disparaging activists and radicals as murderers. But one of Russia’s most prominent radicals saw it another way: Dostoevsky created a new world in which “everything is happening inside out and our usual ideas about good and evil cannot have any binding force.”
Dostoevsky knew he was guilty. He knew that there was a small part of him that resembled a predatory pawnbroker and a writer with an ax. The best crime writers grapple with their own guilt. They understand the perversity of their material, they recognize what it says about us, and they pursue their subjects reluctantly. For Dostoevsky, there are no saints among us. The world is divided between the sinners who bury the bodies and the sinners who probe the wounds.
Correction, Nov. 29, 2021: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misspelled the name of the magazine Dostoevsky started.