The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense

The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense

by Otto Penzler

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The first anthology ever devoted entirely to Russian crime fiction.


The first anthology ever devoted entirely to Russian crime fiction.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Penzler's anthology of Russian crime stories doesn't quite live up to the billing of its title, given the mediocrity of P. Nikitin's "The Strangler," a Sherlock Holmes pastiche that cribs from Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue." Fortunately, that tale is the sole dud among the 19 selections, many of which were penned by such 19th-century literary giants as Gogol, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, whose short but powerful "Sleepy" depicts an overworked servant girl driven by despair to commit murder. The most interesting story is Lev Sheinen's "The Hunting Knife," in which the author, a former prosecutor for Stalin during the purge trials of the 1930s, introduces an impossible crime element. The murder scene from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment may strike some as padding, while others will wonder why Penzler (Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop) includes no examples of contemporary Russian noir. (Dec.)
Los Angeles Times
“Penzler knows that anthologies are like a party: You meet people you already know and people who are completely new to you.”
Robert B. Parker
“Otto Penzler knows more about crime fiction than most people know about anything.”
Library Journal
Is to solve the mystery and nail the bad guys because it's not how their system worked. The stories collected here are more dark psychological tales rather than whodunits with twisty endings. Penzler culls from the likes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Boris Akunin, Nicolai Gogol, and Maxim Gorky, among others. Some authors have contributed multiple stories, e.g., Chekhov is represented four times. The text also includes brief biographies for each author and details of where and when the stories originally appeared. Verdict Those looking for a different take on Russian literature and hardcore mystery hounds will most appreciate this volume.—Mike Rogers, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews

Nineteen reprints with one foot on earth and the other elsewhere.

One of the two biggest surprises here is how generously veteran anthologist Penzler defines the genre: Would anyone else call "The Portrait," Nikolai Gogol's allegory of a spooky painting's power to change lives, or "The Gentleman from San Francisco," Ivan Bunin's massively sarcastic meditation on mortality, crime stories? The other is how readily and rewardingly Russian tales of crime turn transcendental. "Sleepy," Anton Chekhov's sympathetic evocation of a baby-killer, is as earthbound as "Table Talk, 1888," Boris Akunin's morsel of armchair detection, P. Nikitin's surprisingly idiomatic Sherlock Holmes pastiche "The Strangler," Lev Sheinen's Arctic expansion of the locked-room formula in "The Hunting Knife" or Vladimir Nabokov's macabre resolution of domestic difficulties in "Revenge." But Maxim Gorky's portrait of a compulsive killer in "A Strange Murderer" and the showdown between detective and his quarry in Vil Lipatov's "Genka Paltsev, Son of Dimitri" already suggest a metaphysical dimension that blossoms into full strength in Alexander Pushkin's spectral fairy tale "The Queen of Spades," Gogol's peerless tragicomedy "The Overcoat" and a pair of tales—Leo Tolstoy's "God Sees the Truth, But Waits" and Chekhov's "The Bet"—about the casting-off of earthly shackles. Strangest of all is Boris Sokoloff's "The Crime of Dr. Garine," whose investigation into a physician's murder of his much-loved wife ends even more mysteriously than it began.

An entertaining collection of stories. Readers with no taste for the uncanny can enjoy two tart anecdotes about capital punishment—Tolstoy's "Too Dear" and Chekhov's "The Head Gardner's Story"—and Chekhov's deft and amusing whodunit, "The Swedish Match."

Product Details

Publication date:
Pegasus Crime Series
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense

By Otto Penzler


Copyright © 2010 Otto Penzler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-4927-7



* * *


When most of us think of Russian literature, we think of the great, sprawling novels of the nineteenth century by such masters as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the dark hopelessness of the giants of drama and the short story. We rarely associate Russian literature with the mystery story as we know it in the West—and we are right not to do so.

It is appropriate to the point of obviousness to recognize that the detective story cannot flourish in a non-democratic society. The chief protagonist in a detective story is a hero: the person who will right the wrongs perpetrated by a criminal. This is possible only in a society in which the rule of law matters, and it must matter to all strata of that society. If a government is corrupt, or dictatorial, its functionaries are, by definition, primarily focused on their own interests or in those of the government that employs them. Self-preservation, advancement and maintenance of the status quo transcends all other desires of politicians, the police, state militia and military forces in governments in which the state is superior to the individual.

The very notion of Russian detective fiction is oxymoronic, as it is a country whose citizens seldom have enjoyed individual freedom. Sinking from the oppression of the czarist regime to the horrors of the Communist police state, Russia was in no position to offer fictional police officers as the heros of mystery stories, as they were more likely than ordinary citizens to be the criminals and persecutors.

Russian crime and suspense fiction is, therefore, inevitably quite different from the Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler novels and short stories of England and the United States that leap to mind when we think of mystery fiction. Seldom do Russian stories involve the traditional format of a criminal activity, usually murder, committed by an unknown villain, with a detective—whether an official member of the police department, a private eye, or an amateur sleuth—called in to solve the crime, using observation and deduction.

There is a pervasive darkness to Russian crime stories that rivals the relatively new fiction genre that is often termed noir. The attitude of many characters often may be summarized as: Well, what can we do? Dream sequences, ghostly apparitions, supernatural occurrences, illogical choices and unresolved mysteries abound in Russian stories, which are not merely unlike Western detective fiction but are antithetical to its very definition: Crimes are abnormal, anti-social actions for which punishment is the just reward and a representative of society will serve it by employing rational methodology to identify and capture criminals.

Psychological elements produce the resolution of such early Russian crime fiction as Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy's "God Sees the Truth, but Waits." Readers of traditional detective stories may be disappointed to learn that the question must be asked whether a crime has really been committed in such acclaimed works as Ivan Bunin's "The Gentleman from San Francisco" and Boris Sokoloff's "The Crime of Dr. Garine." Supernatural denouements would never pass muster in a novel by Dashiell Hammett or John Dickson Carr, but they are not rare in the stories of Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol.

* * *

In addition to producing very little in the way of classic detective fiction, Russian publishers during the time of the czar did not make translations of English and American mystery writers available to readers. It was only after the Bolshevik Revolution created a new government that the phenomenon of pulp fiction swept across the country. What these thousands of titles lacked in literary style, they made up in adventure and excitement. Much like their American counterparts of the 1920s, these cheaply produced paperbacks featured unrealistic, super-hero crime fighters who fearlessly engaged in combat with enemies of the state. The most frequent villains were fascists and capitalists who were brought to their knees, or to their end, by secret organizations of workers. The equivalent of American "dime novels," these hastily written potboilers sold in the tens of millions until Josef Stalin's Communist Party decided they were too Western, as well as anti-revolutionary. "Papa Joe" believed that the purpose of literature should be to glorify the party and the state, and that singling out individual heroes and their accomplishments was philosophically opposed to that tenet.

After Stalin's death, the Soviet government became somewhat more permissive, allowing native authors to work in the mystery genre while also translating some of the major Western writers, notably Christie, who became a best-seller. There was little similarity between the two schools, however. While Hercule Poirot could catch civil murderers by using his "little gray cells," Soviet protagonists were invariably KGB agents or policemen who battled evil Western capitalists or spies, and their corrupt Soviet pawns, whose major goal was to bring down the state.

Mystery literature has changed a great deal under the "new" Russia. Many English and American authors are routinely translated, and so are books from other Western countries. Among Russian writers, detective novels have flourished, and readers in the former U.S.S.R. have made them their preferred choice of reading matter. In a reader survey taken in 1995, more than 32% of men and 24% of women named "detektivy" as their favorite type of book.

Among contemporary Russian mystery writers, the most successful have been Julian Semyonov, whose more than fifty somewhat uninspired novels about stolid police and KGB agents sold more than 35,000,000 copies; three were translated into English: Petrovka .38 (1965), Tass is Authorized to Announce (1987) and Seventeen Moments of Spring (1988). His popularity has been surpassed in more recent years by Victor Dotsenko, whose Rambo-like hero is a veteran of the Afghan wars and battles the mafia; Aleksandra Marinina, described by her publisher as "the Russian Agatha Christie," whose female protagonist, Anastasia Kamenskaya, is the ultimate armchair detective, solving crimes—like Nero Wolfe and the Old Man in the Corner—without leaving her office; Darya Dontsova, who brings an unusual element into a Russian crime novel—humor; and Boris Akunin, a serious writer who has bridged the two worlds of popular and literary fiction, producing a dozen novels in the classic tradition of nineteenth century novels and who has been translated into many languages, including English.

Like most readers, Russians find their escape from the difficulties of everyday life in literature that provides characters with whom they can identify. Since the fall of the Berlin wall and the destruction of the Iron Curtain, the oppression and seemingly random persecution of ordinary people by the Soviet government has been replaced by a criminal power structure heavily comprised of the former Communist Party officials who have merely switched allegiance from one victimizer to another. As ruthless criminal organizations flourished in the 1990s, as they continue to do today, writers gave the decent, hard-working reader a place of comfort. In popular crime novels, as the brutally powerful took advantage of their weaker neighbors, a hero emerged to do combat with those vile forces and emerge triumphant, providing a vicarious victory for the reader. While many of these adventure/crime novels lack literary merit, they have spurred great interest in and support of the mystery genre. Good defeating Evil. This cannot be a bad thing.



* * *



Grigory Shalvivich Chkhartishvili (1956–) took the pseudonym Boris Akunin as a tribute to Mikhail Bakunin (B. Akunin), the Russian anarchist, and the poet Anna Akhmatova, known as Akuna. Akunin is also the Japanese word for a bad guy. Born in Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia (then a part of the Soviet Union), his family moved to Moscow in 1958, where he attended the University of Moscow. Although now known worldwide as a writer of distinguished mystery fiction, as well as one of the most widely read authors in Russia (he was named the Russian writer of the year in 2000), he was a magazine editor and is also a linguist, critic, essayist and translator of Japanese. Because he refused to join the Communist Party, he had little success and, turning 40, decided to try writing crime fiction.

In his first novel, Azazel (published in English as The Winter Queen in 2003), he introduced Erast Fandorin, who has appeared in about a dozen novels. Those which followed his debut and have been translated into English are Murder on the Leviathan (2004), Turkish Gambit (2005), The Death of Achilles (2005), Special Assignments (2007), The State Counsellor (2008), He Lover of Death (2009) and The Coronation (2009). Fandorin began his career as a detective in Czarist Russia in 1876 (the year Bakunin died) but the time-frame shifted quickly into the twentieth century, so he is now about 50. He is brave, an accomplished kickboxer, and a dignified gentleman all at the same time, to which Akunin ascribes a large part of his popularity. He has also written several contemporary novels about Sister Pelagia, a crime-solving orthodox nun, including Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog (2006), Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk (2007) and Sister Pelagia and the Red Rooster (2008).

"Table Talk, 1882" was first published in the Russian edition of Playboy in 2000; it was first published in English in the February 2004 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in a translation by Anthony Olcott.

* * *

After the coffee and liqueurs, the conversation turned to mystery. Deliberately not looking at her new guest—a collegiate assessor and the season's most fashionable man—Lidia Nikolaevna Odintsova, hostess of the salon, remarked, "All Moscow is saying Bismarck must have poisoned poor Skobelev. Can it really be that society is to remain ignorant of the truth behind this horrible tragedy?"

The guest to whom Lidia Nikolaevna was treating her regulars today was Erast Petrovich Fandorin. He was maddeningly handsome, cloaked in an aura of mystery, and a bachelor besides. In order to inveigle Erast Petrovich into her salon, the hostess had had to bring off an extremely complex intrigue consisting of many parts—an undertaking at which she was an unsurpassed mistress.

Her sally was addressed to Arkhip Giatsintovich Mustafin, an old friend of the house. A man of fine mind, Mustafin caught Lidia Nikolaevna's intention at the first hint and, casting a sideways glance at the young collegiate assessor from beneath his ruddy and lashless eyelids, intoned, "Ah, but I've been told our White General* may have been destroyed by a fatal passion."

The others at the table held their breath, as it was rumored that Erast Petrovich, who until quite recently had served in the office of Moscow's Governor-General as an officer for special missions, had had a most direct relation to the investigation into events surrounding the death of the great commander. However, disappointment awaited the guests, for the handsome Fandorin listened politely to Arkhip Giatsintovich with an air suggesting that the words had nothing whatever to do with him.

This brought about the one situation that an experienced hostess could not permit—an awkward silence. Lidia Nikolaevna knew immediately what to do. Lowering her eyelids, she came to Mustafin's assistance. "This is so very like the mysterious disappearance of poor Polinka Karakina! Surely you recall that dreadful story, my friend?"

"How could I not?" Arkhip drawled, indicating his gratitude with a quick lift of an eyebrow.

Some of the party nodded as if also remembering, but most of the guests clearly knew nothing about Polinka Karakina. In addition, Mustafin had a reputation as a most exquisite raconteur, such that it would be no penance to hear even a familiar tale from his lips. So here Molly Sapegina, a charming young woman whose husband—such a tragedy—had been killed in Turkestan a year ago, asked with curiosity, "A mysterious disappearance? How interesting!"

Lidia Nikolaevna made as if to accommodate herself to her chair more comfortably, so also letting Mustafin know that she was passing nourishment of the table talk into his capable hands.

"Many of us, of course, still recall old Prince Lev Lvovich Karakin,"—so Arkhip Giatsintovich began his tale. "He was a man of the old sort, a hero of the Hungarian campaign. He had no taste for the liberal vagaries of our late Tsar, and so retired to his lands outside Moscow, where he lived like a nabob of Hindi. He was fabulously wealthy, of an estate no longer found among the aristocracy of today.

"The prince had two daughters, Polinka and Anyuta. I beg you to note, no Frenchified Pauline or English Annie. The general held the very strictest of patriotic views. The girls were twins. Face, figure, voice, all were identical. They were not to be confused, however, for right here, on her right cheek, Anyuta had a birthmark. Lev Lvovich's wife had died in childbirth, and the prince did not marry again. He always said that it was a lot of fuss and he had no need—after all, there was no shortage of serving girls. And indeed, he had no shortage of serving girls, even after the emancipation. For, as I said, Lev Lvovich lived the life of a true nabob."

"For shame. Archie! Without vulgarity, if you please," Lidia Nikolaevna remonstrated with a stern smile, although she knew perfectly well that a good story is never hurt by "adding a little pepper," as the English say.

Mustafin pressed his palm to his breast in apology, then continued his tale. "Polinka and Anyuta were far from being horrors, but it would also be difficult to call them great beauties. However, as we all know, a dowry of millions is the best of cosmetics, so that in the season when they debuted, they produced something like a fever epidemic among the eligible bachelors of Moscow. But then the old prince took some sort of offense at our honored Governor-General and withdrew to his piney Sosnovka, never to leave the place again.

"Lev Lvovich was a heavyset fellow, short-winded and red-faced, a man prone to apoplexy, as they say, so there was reason to hope that the princesses' imprisonment would not last long. However, the years went on, Prince Karakin grew ever fatter, flying into ever more thunderous rages, and evinced no intention whatsoever of dying. The suitors waited and waited and in the end quite forgot about the poor prisoners.

"Although it was said to be in the Moscow region, Sosnovka was in fact in the deep forests of Zaraisky district, not only nowhere near the railroad, but a good twenty versts even from the nearest well-traveled road. The wilderness, in a word. To be sure, it was a heavenly place, and excellently established. I have a little village nearby, so that I often called on the prince as a neighbor. The black grouse shooting there is exquisite, but that spring especially the birds seemed to fly right into one's sights—I've never seen the like in all my days. So, in the end, I became a habitué of the house, which is why the entire tale unfolded right before my eyes.

"The old prince had been trying for some time to construct a belvedere in his park, in the Viennese style. He had first hired a famous architect from Moscow, who had drawn up the plans and even started the construction, but then didn't finish it—he could not endure the prince's bullheaded whims and so had departed. To finish the work they summoned an architect of somewhat lower flight, a Frenchman named Renar. Young, and rather handsome. True, he was noticeably lame, but since Lord Byron our young ladies have never counted this as a defect.

"What happened next you can imagine for yourselves. The two maidens had been sitting in the country for a decade now, never once getting out. They both were twenty-eight years old, with absolutely no society of any sort, save for the arrival of the odd fuddy-duddy such as myself, come to hunt. And suddenly—a handsome young man of lively mind, and from Paris at that.


Excerpted from The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense by Otto Penzler. Copyright © 2010 Otto Penzler. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

Robert B. Parker
Otto Penzler knows more about crime fiction than most people know about anything.

Meet the Author

Otto Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. He is the founder of the Mysterious Press and Otto Penzler Books, and has received an Edgar Award, an Ellery Queen Award, and a Raven Award for his contribution to the mystery field. His anthology The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps was a New York Times Bestseller.

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