Sites Set on Crime: Justice, Truth and Knowledge in Early Russian Crime Fiction

Activity: Talk or presentation typesPresentation


This paper examines the role of spatial organization and representation in a work of late-Imperial-era Russian crime fiction: Semyon Panov’s Tri suda, ili ubiistvo vo vremia bala (Three Courts, or Murder During the Ball) (1876). Nineteenth-century Russian crime fiction is only now beginning to receive the critical attention it deserves, although knowledge of its existence and characteristics is still limited both inside and outside of Russia. Panov himself remains a marginalized figure in the pages of Russian literary history in spite of being one of the most accomplished authors of the genre during this period. Three Courts is one of five novels Panov published in the 1870s and describes the investigation into the murder of Elena Ruslanova during her engagement ball at her family’s mansion.

This discussion will argue that the depiction of various spaces in Three Courts, and their relationship to one another, functions as an expression of the various matrices of knowledge, truth and justice that are interrogated in the work. The unmistakable Gothic overtones of the early descriptions of the Ruslanov mansion and its labyrinthine rooms effectively mirror the mystery surrounding Elena’s murder. However, these are intriguingly contrasted with more transparent elements, including various windows and a glass roof, perhaps suggesting the prospect of the detective uncovering the truth. The interrelationship of these spaces effectively foreshadows the detective’s difficulties in the case, however. The paper will also examine the detective’s role in the creation of a quasi-theatrical space as he stage-manages a reenactment of characters’ positions in the house at the moment of the murder. In its final section, this paper will analyse the implications of the presentation of the space of the courtroom, a key site in post-judicial-reform Russia. Again juxtaposing more open and closed spaces, the representation of the courtroom eloquently expresses the contested notions of truth and justice as they are embodied in Panov’s novel, which features a fallible investigation, a wrongful conviction and a re-examination of the case.
Period9 Jul 2019
Event titleVictorian Popular Fiction Association Annual Conference
Event typeConference
LocationLondon, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational