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The book "The Russian Detective" by Carol Adlam is a beautifully illustrated tribute to the beginnings of crime fiction.

The book “The Russian Detective” by Carol Adlam is a beautifully illustrated tribute to the beginnings of crime fiction.


Many people are aware of the lengthy novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, even if they have not actually read them. However, Carol Adlam’s new graphic novel, The Russian Detective, finds its inspiration in lesser-known sources. Adlam, who is an associate professor at Nottingham Trent University, and Claire Whitehead, a professor at the University of St Andrew’s, have collaborated for years on the Lost Detective Project. This project focuses on forgotten crime fiction writers who were contemporaries of Dostoevsky. As part of their collaboration, Adlam has adapted several of their stories into different media, including The Russian Detective. This book is a masterpiece, with its intricate details and beautiful imagery that make it worth reading multiple times. For added enjoyment, it can be supplemented with background reading.

The excitement begins with its endpapers, which display a window of a fishmonger with large red herrings hanging. This serves as a warning. Adlam’s novel is full of appeal, especially with its protagonist Charlotta Ivanovna, or Charlie Fox, a journalist and detective who is a combination of Kate Warne, America’s first female detective (who passed away in 1868 while working for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency), and the nanny with the same name in Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard (a quirky gun-wielding character who performs impressive parlor tricks). However, it is also a complexly woven, intertextual visual spectacle: think of it as a Russian Literature I-Spy game. I couldn’t help but smile at Dostoevsky’s cameo as a grumpy train passenger, and the seamstress whose customers include a Mrs. Karenina. Although I confess that some of Adlam’s other references, such as Charlotta’s dream taken from a passage in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, initially escaped me.

A page from The Russian Detective.

“View this image in full screen.”

Regardless. The novel also operates on a more surface level: a story that revisits the pure joys of childhood reading (I wonder if Adlam read Joan Aiken in their youth, for it was Aiken more than any Russian that I recalled as I read through its pages). It features an exhilarating – at times difficult to comprehend – storyline, in which Fox, a magician and deceiver as well as journalist, begrudgingly returns to her hometown of Nowheregrad to investigate the murder of Elena Ruslanova, the daughter of a wealthy glass manufacturer. There is evidence in the snow, a small dog named Igoyok, a balloon bound for Siberia, elegant masquerade balls, Orthodox priests, and a mystical lantern theater.

What sets this beautiful book apart is its illustrations, which create a deep atmosphere and are incredibly stunning. Adlam is skilled at caricature and can skillfully depict details like noses and cheekbones. However, what truly stands out is her ability to incorporate various visual elements into her storytelling, evoking the feeling of a rich historical album or museum exhibit. With woodcuts, newspaper clippings, photogravure, and even a thaumatrope, her pen and paintbrush seem capable of anything. If you share my appreciation for her talent and want to learn more about the sources she draws from with such brilliance, I suggest reading a fascinating conversation from 2023 between her and Claire Whitehead in the academic journal Adaptation.

Source: theguardian.com