CSI: Karamazov (The Ghettoization of Courtroom Drama)

June 4, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 6 8 min read

coverI was trying to summarize The Brothers Karamazov for my wife when I realized that I was embarrassing myself.

“There’s this rich old man with lots of enemies, and it turns out that someone has bashed his head in. The police have to figure out which of his three sons is responsible for the murder, and so they arrest the oldest son (who’s at a drunken party with his mistress), because he clearly needed the old man’s money to pay off his debts. The oldest son tries to put together a convincing alibi, but at the trial his fiancée rats him out because she’s really in love with his younger brother, and—”

“Let me guess. The butler did it.”

“Oh. Well, yeah, actually, the butler did do it.” (Spoiler alert?)

Now, the fault here clearly lies with me rather than Dostoevsky, because my 30-second plot summary manages to exclude everything that puts The Brothers Karamazov among the world’s great novels (such as the fact that the butler did it, in part, because of an argument about the moral implications of the non-existence of God). But sometimes summaries, even the most reductive and unfair ones, can be revealing. And what a plot synopsis reveals is how Dostoevsky managed to hang a book of profound questions on some of the most hackneyed conventions of fiction: the murder mystery, the love triangle, the courtroom drama.

Conventions are what we make of them, and they are entirely different things in the paws of a hack, or the hands of a master. In one, they are rote, paint-by-numbers exercises that satisfy our hunger for the familiar; in the other, they are closer to archetypes that bear remarkable thematic weight. But not every convention can bear the weight of every theme. The conventional knight’s quest or saint’s life might have been dominant literary conceits in another era, but it’s hard to imagine serious fiction making use of them today. And just as conventions go in and out of fashion, they also move into and out of better neighborhoods: up and down the scale that, fairly or not, divides “literary fiction” from “genre fiction.” Today’s literary set-piece becomes tomorrow’s predictable genre exercise — and we can see that process playing out in the sad, but inevitable, decline of the courtroom drama.

In the 19th century, Dostoevsky gave over the climax of his magnum opus to a full-blown murder trial with all of the trimmings, from surprise witnesses to chapter-length closing statements to a dramatic reading of the verdict. Nearly a century and a half later, though, the courtroom drama lives in a cultural ghetto. We still love the readymade tension and clash of a good trial, but we largely satisfy that urge in the less reputable precincts of cable TV: an excessive interest in Casey Anthony or Scott Peterson (or worse, Nancy Grace) is usually something to be apologetic about. In fiction, our love of trials is catered to by an entire subgenre of lawyer novels, and by lawyer shows whose verdicts seem to always reflect conveniently on the advocates’ sex lives. Today, it’s hard to imagine a major novel, like The Brothers Karamazov, overcoming that accumulated baggage to make a murder trial its dramatic linchpin.

An important reason, I’d suggest, is this: as criminal trials have grown fairer, they’ve also grown less dramatically interesting. The difference lies in the changing possibilities of evidence. What would the trial of Dmitri Karamazov have looked like in a world of DNA testing, security cameras, or cellphone records? What would it have looked like even two decades later, as fingerprinting came into widespread use? Absent such hard evidence, a court would have to focus on “softer” variables: questions of character, psychology, relationships, and memory. Not coincidentally, these are exactly the kinds of questions that interest literary novelists — and a trial was once an ideal forum for exploring them. In a world before modern forensic evidence, a criminal trial was much more like a novel: it was more likely to be an exploration of personality, a contest between two different theories of a human being. The growing sophistication of forensic evidence hasn’t erased those questions from the courtroom, but it has relegated them to the background. Given the choice between a 21st-century court and a 19th-century court, we’d be more confident (though certainly not completely confident) that the former gave accurate verdicts. In the latter, however, we’d find much more scope for the ambiguities and dueling interpretations that are crucial to good fiction.

That’s the kind of scope we see in the trial of Dmitri Karamazov for the murder of his father. The case is not so much a “whodunit?” as a “who is he?” And his murder trial is an appropriate climax to the novel because it is a struggle, in the absence of hard evidence that points either way, to construct and compare dueling versions of the rash defendant and the victim, his repulsive father.

Both prosecution and defense agree that Dmitri repeatedly threatened his father’s life and, on the night of the crime, broke onto his father’s property with the intention of doing him harm; in the process, Dmitri assaulted a servant with a bronze pestle he had in his pocket. The prosecution claims that Dmitri then forced his way into the house, murdered his father with the pestle, and stole 3,000 rubles his father kept in an envelope. The defense claims that Dmitri approached the house but repented and ran away at the last moment; the murder must have been committed by Smerdyakov, the father’s butler. (Dostoevsky reveals that this version is the true one, though neither side has any inkling that the real murder weapon was a paperweight from the victim’s desk.) The prosecution wants to paint Dmitri as vicious and violent, consumed with hatred for his father and entirely capable of following through on his threats; the defense wants to paint him as a fiery and impulsive young man, but ultimately an honorable and sentimental one, whose threats were no more than drunken boasting.

It’s remarkable how little of the evidence and argument brought forward by either side would be relevant to fact-finding in a modern courtroom. Modern trials, too, have a place for character testimony — but certainly not to the extent we see in the Karamazov case. A local doctor testifies that he gave the defendant a present of nuts when he was a neglected child, and recounts the tearful thanks Dmitri later gave him as a grown man. Dmitri’s fiancée testifies that he had once generously saved her family from financial ruin, “and, indeed, the figure of the young officer who, with a respectful bow to the innocent girl, handed her his last five thousand rubles — all he had in the world — was thrown into a very sympathetic and attractive light.”

Shortly afterward, though, the fiancée suffers a change of heart — and reveals to the court that Dmitri had sent her a letter, scribbled in a bar, promising to murder his father. The prosecutor takes full advantage of that revelation in summing up Dmitri’s character to the jury:

He is a marvelous mingling of good and evil, he is a lover of culture and Schiller, yet he brawls in taverns and plucks out the beards of his boon companions. Oh, he, too, can be good and noble, but only when all goes well with him….But if he has not money, he will show what he is ready to do to get it when he is in great need of it.

The defense counsel’s response is to build a counter-narrative of Dmitri: “Gentlemen of the jury, the psychological method is a two-edged weapon, and we, too, can use it.” The defense, in fact, wants to cast the prosecutor as an over-eager crime novelist, guilty of telling without showing:

We have, in the talented prosecutor’s speech, heard a stern analysis of the prisoner’s character and conduct….He went into psychological subtleties into which he could not have entered, if he had the least conscious and malicious prejudice against the prisoner. But there are things which are even worse….It is worse if we are carried away by the artistic instinct, by the desire to create, so to speak, a romance.

With that point made, the defense attorney calls the jury’s attention to the inconsistencies in this psychological portrait. The prosecutor, for instance, claims that Dmitri flung away the envelope containing the 3,000 rubles and then paused to check on the servant he had assaulted, to determine whether or not he had killed a potential witness. But how, the defense asks, could one man do both? The first step is the panic of an amateur—the second, the calculation of a hardened killer. “Mr. Prosecutor,” the defense attorney demands, “have you not invented a new personality?”

In the personality built up by the defense, the incriminating letter was merely “drunken irritability.” The butler Smerdyakov, in fact, looks far more like a murderer:

In character, in spirit, he was by no means the weak man the prosecutor has made him out to be….There was no simplicity about him, either. I found in him, on the contrary, an extreme mistrustfulness concealed under a mask of naivete, and an intelligence of considerable range….I left him with the conviction that he was a distinctly spiteful creature, excessively ambitious, vindictive, and intensely envious.

Summing up, Dmitri’s counsel claims that the prosecution is so eager to bend the truth because of its outrage at the alleged crime of father-killing. But was the victim—abusive, neglectful, and self-absorbed as he was—a father in anything more than name?

“Father”…a great word, a precious name. But one must use words honestly, gentlemen, and I venture to call things by their right names: such a father as old Karamazov cannot be called a father and does not deserve to be. Filial love for an unworthy father is an absurdity, an impossibility. Love cannot be created from nothing: only God can create something from nothing.

This line of argument matters in the trial because there simply isn’t anything more substantial on which either side can ground its hopes. But it matters in the novel itself because it restates, in blunt form, questions that Dostoevsky has been asking for 800 pages: what do fathers and sons owe to one another? How much are we bound by our inheritance from our parents? Is selfless, unconditional love ex nihilo humanly possible, or is it an attribute of God alone?

All of the questions raised in Dmitri’s trial function in a similar way: the trial is the novel in miniature, the place in which its questions and conflicts are cast in the highest relief. In convicting Dmitri, the jury reaches a verdict that’s both understandable and wrong. But that’s of secondary importance: Dostoevsky is able to plausibly write that dramatically rich trial because the question at its heart—did Dmitri Karamazov murder his father?—can’t be answered by anything other than a series of murkier questions.

But what if the characters could answer with certainty? What if it were simply a matter of solving the case by dusting for the right fingerprints? Could Dmitri’s trial, transplanted into our century, possibly bear the weight that Dostoevsky wants it to bear?

Actually, we don’t have to speculate. Online, I discovered a new classroom activity [pdf] for high school students: “Integrating Forensics, Civics, and World Literature: The Brothers Karamazov.” The exercise, sponsored by the University of North Carolina, asks students to retry Dmitri in a modern courtroom. Here are some of the guidelines:

Whose DNA do we need to collect?

1. DNA on the pestle (from the hair fibers)

2. DNA on the paperweight (from the blood)

3. Fyodor’s [victim’s] DNA (We will have to exhume his body to do this.)

4. Grigory’s [assaulted servant’s] DNA

Whose fingerprints do we need to collect?

1. Dmitri’s fingerprints

2. Smerdyakov’s fingerprints (We will also have to exhume Smerdyakov’s body to be able to lift his fingerprints. If his body is too badly decomposed, we will need to look at his thumb prints on his birth certificate if that can be found anywhere)

That’s practically all the evidence we need to acquit Dmitri and correctly convict Smerdyakov in his place—evidence that renders irrelevant questions of Dmitri’s upbringing, his drunkenness, his volcanic relationship with his fiancée, his clash with his brothers, his father’s failings, Smerdyakov’s feigned simplicity, and everything else that turns the trial into such a troubling character study. Even if the evidence were somehow inconclusive, the retrial exercise translates the story onto an entirely different plane: not of character, but of brute facts. It reads like a script for CSI: Karamazov.

And that’s exactly why the courtroom drama has almost died out as a serious literary form. The growth of what we can know, and the certainty with which we can know it, has cut a good bit of guesswork out of criminal justice. But literature—at least literature that aims higher than CSI — is built on inspired guesswork. Certainty is good for justice; it’s poison for fiction.

is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University and a former congressional speechwriter. He is the co-author of Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar.


  1. I loved the opening paragraph on the banality of trying to summarize a piece of writing through a simple synopsis. I have trouble with this very same thing when friends ask what I’m currently writing. Do I relay the basic details of plot in order to create the easiest picture to paint for them? I always end up saying something like, “Well, it’s about these people, and they try to live a life that satisfies them, but. . . um, well, it’s really about, I don’t know, individuality and. . .” and then I shut up, knowing I sound both extremely trite and pretentious. Obviously, novels are “about things”, but the “about” is sometimes there simply to explore larger ideas, and in reducing it all down to a conversational level diminishes everything worth the work’s while.

  2. Great article. I also tend to forget that this is a novel about a crime, although I definitely think of it as a book about fathers and sons (both human and divine). More serious contemporary art, seems to me, have simply begun skipping the courtroom scenes – going directly from the crime to the prison.

  3. Shelley, Michael, and Nate–

    I had a similar experience: from the way it was always presented as this rarified work of art, I had no idea until I read it that much of The Brothers Karamazov is outwardly “about” something as humble as a juicy murder mystery. Of course, saying that a book is “about” something, full stop, is really begging the question: a book can be about one thing on the level of action, and about something entirely different on the level of theme.

    So The Brothers Karamazov can be about murder, sorrow, fathers and sons, etc., at the same time–and I think a really interesting question is how these different levels of “about-ness” interact. My argument here was that the themes you want to pursue on the higher level can be limited by the plot conventions you use on the lower level–and also that not all conventions are created equal. Like the courtroom drama, their ability to plausibly bear the weight of big themes can become degraded over time. I haven’t given it much thought, but I wonder if that’s true of other plot conventions as well.

  4. Excellent essay. I forgot, or missed, the importance of the trial and the weighing of Dimitri’s soul.

    I reread Karamazov the last winter, and I have been thinking about it as a foundation of noir: If God is dead, ever thing is permitted; with no revealed morality, to whom are we loyal; the building tensions between father and sons; the illegitimate probable fourth Karamazov brother, Smerdayakov; and the final conviction of the wrong man. What is different, in the end, is that Dimitri accepts his conviction as just punishment for his rage, his wanton life, and for the possibility that he might have killed his father someday. Dostoyevsky tries to reaffirm Christian values after hundreds of pages of making the case against them; I see a hung jury.

  5. Our hard evidence isn’t as hard as we’d like to think. Frontline did an investigation of forensic practices and certifications ~ 4 months ago; you all should go check it out.

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