Lost Detectives no longer: ‘novel’ forms of Russian crime fiction

During the late imperial era of Russian history (1860-1917), crime fiction was a hugely popular literary genre. But with the exception of a couple of famous names, most of these stories’ authors have been forgotten to history – consequentially, copies of their work are available exclusively in Russian, and many have not even been reprinted since the 19th century. Since 2008, Dr Claire Whitehead of the School of Modern Languages has been one of the only researchers in the world pursuing and investigating these works for what they can tell us, not just about historical Russian literature and society, but about contemporary society more broadly.

Carol Adlam, The Song is Sung (2018) – the book cover of Dr Claire Whitehead’s The Poetics of Early Russian Crime Fiction, 1860-1917. Oxford: Legenda; MHRA. Image © Carol Adlam.

In 2018, Whitehead approached Dr Carol Adlam – artist, writer, Associate Professor in Illustration at Nottingham Trent University, and a close friend of Whitehead’s – to design the cover image for her forthcoming publication. This was the first book-length study of the formative years of Russian crime fiction, and the success of Carol’s cover design inspired them to talk about further possible collaboration. They came up with the idea for the project: ‘Lost Detectives: Adapting Old Texts for New Media’ which has now been running since early 2019. This project seeks to bring previously forgotten works of 19th century Russian crime fiction to wider Anglophone audiences through various acts of adaptation.

Since then, Whitehead and Adlam have cultivated a collaborative process that has given rise to podcasts, a website, scripts for radio plays, and most imminently, an English-language graphic novel adaptation of one of these ‘lost’ works. Soon to be published by Jonathan Cape in March of 2024, The Russian Detective sees Adlam adapt Semyon Panov’s 1876 novel Three Courts, or Murder During the Ball into a stunning work that combines her artistic and writing talents with Whitehead’s research.

Collaborative creation

Whitehead’s longstanding research into Russian crime fiction and Adlam’s skills as an artist and writer, as well as her academic background in Russian studies, combine productively as they collaborate on adaptations.

As preparation for The Russian Detective, Whitehead shared her notes on Panov’s original novel highlighting particular areas of interest before Adlam developed the first of what would turn out to be three script-adaptations. The two then discussed the draft scripts and issues that arose in the adaptation process. For instance, Whitehead indicated that one reason for the relative unfamiliarity of historical Russian crime fiction to an Anglophone reader is that, while conventional British examples tend to focus on the question of ‘whodunit’, Russian works are more interested in ‘whydunit’ – thus shifting the focus from the question of individual guilt for crime to that of societal problems and collective responsibility. Similarly, Whitehead and Adlam have frequently discussed the problematic issue of male authors’ approaches to the representation of violence against women in these works. These conversations have influenced not only Adlam’s creative decisions in the adaptations but have helped shape the direction of Whitehead’s current research work.

Carol Adlam, The Russian Detective. Graphic novel (Jonathan Cape 2023-4). Image © Carol Adlam.

Exploring new perspectives

A recent area of focus for Whitehead has been female crime writers of the same period, and how their gender identity can alter the approach to crime fiction. Much of late imperial Russian crime fiction is not only written by male authors but is also narrated from the perspective of male investigators. As such, it inescapably prioritizes opinions and experiences of crime and society distinct to the male experience and thereby reinforces models of patriarchy. However, novels written by women move away from the model of male investigator-as-narrator, give greater prominence to the perspectives and voices of female characters, and offer a different, often more critical angle on familiar themes, such as the integrity of the judicial system. Furthermore, Whitehead has discovered that works by female authors tend to be more inclusive of other genres, such as gothic novels, romance novels, society novels, and thus expand the reach of crime fiction.

Many of these reflections are integrated into The Russian Detective. In Panov’s original novel, the female victim is murdered by her best friend because she has become engaged to the killer’s former lover. Adlam and Whitehead both found this plot problematic and reductive of the female experience. Adlam’s solution is to have framed this original plot entirely differently and to have introduced a variety of changes in terms of both story and character in her free adaptation. Now, The Russian Detective’s central character is female: Charlie Fox is the correspondent for a daily newspaper (thus mirroring the actual profession of many female crime writers), an acrobat with an amazing sleight of hand who is not above enlisting the help of her female lover as she tries to coax a confession from the culprit. As such, Adlam’s adaptation breathes new life into the original source material and offers readers a morally ambiguous heroine whose complexity will fascinate readers.

Plans for the future

The ‘Lost Detectives’ project and The Russian Detective are both inspired by the historical popularity of crime fiction in Russia. But crime fiction remains hugely popular amongst audiences across the world in the present day. This can be explained by the fact that crime fiction is an effective barometer by which to measure a society’s values, anxieties, fears, and aspirations, and how these might change over time. As such, Whitehead and Adlam both feel that the work of ‘Lost Detectives’ will not end with the upcoming publication of The Russian Detective. On the contrary, they are continuing to explore various ways of giving more people access to this fascinating but relatively unknown literary genre. Future plans include developing examples of Russian crime fiction into VR and gaming adaptations with the help of industry experts, forensic scientists and other storytellers.

For now, The Russian Detective offers the public an exciting and visually arresting way of accessing an almost-lost novel from 1870s Russia.