Forty-two stories, many new to English-language readers, that reveal not only the range of the Russian master (1860–1904) but what crime stories were like before they became their own genre.
As the brilliant sketch “What You Usually Find in Novels” points out, the 19th-century novel was encrusted with clichés. Not so the crime story, whose rules had yet to be set in stone. So Chekhov is free to explore the frontiers among persons, events and tones not yet established as generic types. The comically, often disastrously unprepossessing heroes of these tales can awaken from a night at the cemetery or a night of horror to realize how vacuous were the bogeymen that frightened them; virtuous souls can take unspeakable actions without quite noticing what they’re up to, and end up dragging even more innocent passersby to their doom; compulsive confessors can bare their darkest secrets without realizing how anticlimactic they are; and the author can repeatedly lay the groundwork for dramatic courtroom scenes and then cut away from them, thumbing his nose at any assumptions about suspense. Chekhov’s lifelong habit of throwing away scenes he’s portentously built up to is nowhere more obvious than in the three longest stories here. “The Swedish Match” and “The Drama at the Hunt,” for example, begin like well-behaved whodunits before tailing off mischievously into regions the writers’ manuals warn you away from. And in the third, “Thieves,” an ordinary man who falls among seducers and robbers shows in the end that he’s even more ordinary than he knows. The translation, by turns stately (the patronymics remain intact) and colloquial, takes some getting used to, but it certainly frees the author from any Victorian overlay.
A splendidly lightweight collection whose satiric touch is so deft that it seems to be sending up a genre yet unborn.