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The Russian Detective: Reconceptualising Forgotten 19th-Century Crime Fiction
Fri 21 June 202421 Jun 2024 
06:3008:00 PM
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Please join Carol Adlam for a conversation about her new graphic novel, The Russian Detective, with Dr Claire Whitehead, Reader in Russian at the University of St Andrews. The Russian Detective was inspired by Semyon Panov’s bestselling crime novel, Three Courts, or Murder at the Ball (1876), which was later forgotten and never translated into English.

Carol Adlam will tell us about her reworking of the long-lost story – including why she employs certain visual and textual devices, from newspaper headlines to lubki woodcuts; her choice of a woman protagonist; and why we should rethink the 19th-century Russian literary canon. The discussion will be framed within the context of the Lost Detectives project which Adlam and Whitehead collaborated on, which brought forgotten works of Russian crime fiction back into the limelight and explored how – and why – to adapt them for a modern audience.

The Russian Detective’s protagonist is Charlotta Ivanovna (aka Charlie Fox) an infamous daredevil, undercover journalist, magician and thief. She reluctantly returns to her hometown to report on the locked-room murder of Elena Ruslanova, daughter of a fabulously rich glass manufacturer. But in her attempts to unravel the mystery, she is caught up in a multi-layered story and faced with uncomfortable truths about the past she ran away from.

Behind its captivating illustrations (including clues to spot and literary Easter eggs), The Russian Detective is a historical study of the period: its societal problems, methods of detective work and forensic analysis, and the legal system where evidence was less important than the criminal’s confession. Adlam explores early appetites for true crime and sensationalism, as many crime writers were journalists and court reporters. She also looks at the place of women in 19th-century society, addressing the work of “stunt” journalists (a derogatory term for women doing investigative work) and the fact that women’s low status meant they could pass by unnoticed – rather helpful if you’re a detective.

The Russian Detective emerged from the Lost Detectives project that Adlam and Whitehead worked on together from 2019–2023, bringing together Adlam’s expertise in visual and textual adaptation and Whitehead’s decade of research into 19th-century crime writing. Adlam’s adaptations included artwork, a radio play, a musical libretto, and the script for a stage play of a 1892 novel by Aleksandra Sokolova, one of the only Russian women to write crime fiction during this period. By reintroducing forgotten names, and positioning women in a genre which traditionally exploits them, Adlam and Whitehead have brought a valuable contribution to our understanding of 19th-century Russian literature.

You can read the Q&A with Carol Adlam about her book here.

Carol Adlam

Dr Carol Adlam is Associate Professor in the Nottingham School of Art & Design. She holds a PhD in Russian and an MA in Illustration from the Cambridge School of Art, and specialises in graphic novels, scripts, short stories, graphic journalism and creative non-fiction. Adlam won a World Illustration Award in 2018, and was shortlisted in both 2016 and 2015. She was the Modern Languages writer-in-residence at the University of St Andrews in 2020 and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge in 2021, and has also held residencies at The National Archives, the National Army Museum, and Nottingham Museum and Castle Galleries. She has written and/or illustrated for The Guardian, Delayed Gratification: The Slow Journalism Magazine, and the United Nations, among many others. Her latest book is The Russian Detective (Jonathan Cape, 2024).

Claire Whitehead

Dr Claire Whitehead is Reader in Russian at the University of St Andrews. She teaches Russian language and works on Russophone literature and culture from the nineteenth century onwards, with a particular focus on narrative theory, crime fiction and the fantastic. Her recent publications include a monograph The Poetics of Early Russian Crime Fiction, 1860-1917: Deciphering Tales of Detection (Legenda, 2018) and articles Russia's First Female Crime Writer, Aleksandra Sokolova (1833–1914): Gender, Violence and Agency (Slavonic and East European Review, 2021) and Bodies of Evidence: The Depiction of Violence Against Female Characters in Late Imperial Russian Crime Fiction (Modern Languages Open, 2023).


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