The first act of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is not what you would call straightforward. The novel opens with a dropout law student heading to the apartment of a local pawnbroker, where he sells a trinket and then plans how he will murder her later. He then goes to a dive bar and listens to the endless sob story of a drunken civil servant, escorts him home, and goes to bed. The next morning he wakes up and reads a 10-page letter from his mom, wanders around the city, passes out in a bush, and has a nightmare about a bunch of guys beating up a horse. He then wanders around some more until he overhears the pawnbroker’s sister saying she’s going to leave their apartment the following evening, at which point he returns to his bed and sleeps through most of the next day. He wakes up in the evening, walks downstairs, steals an axe, heads to the pawnbroker’s apartment, and murders her with it, then murders her sister when she unexpectedly shows up and finds him in the apartment.

As is ever the case with the novels of Dostoevsky, the opacity of this narrative is part of the reason for its irreducible magnetism. The works of the great Russian novelist’s major period often feel like they have been assembled post facto by some kind of collage artist, or else have been abridged at crucial points by a redactor who believed rationality and evenhandedness to be cardinal artistic sins. When reading Dostoevsky, one often gets the paranoid feeling that the real story is happening somewhere else, just around the corner or on the other side of town. Perhaps the best description of this phenomenon is from a long-lost lecture by T.S. Eliot, who states that “in Dostoevsky’s novels there are everywhere two planes of reality, and that the scene before our eyes is only the screen and veil of another action which is taking place behind it.”

The inscrutability of Dostoevsky’s fiction is also what has attracted so many of its interpreters. The gnomic pronouncements that fill his pages almost cry out for easy explanation, and that is what Kevin Birmingham tries to provide in his new book, The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece. Intertwining the tale of Crime and Punishment’s composition with the story of Pierre-Louis Lacenaire, an infamous French spree killer whose deeds fascinated Dostoevsky, the book announces itself as the first to “provide sustained attention to what Lacenaire meant to Dostoevsky and how his years-long consideration of the French murderer shaped his understanding of both the nature of evil and the way it was evolving amid the century’s new ideas and tribulations.” The author of a book about James Joyce’s Ulysses that discusses the novel in light of the censorship controversy that followed its publication, Birmingham attempts to do something similar with Lacenaire, using the real-world story of the French murderer to throw light on the famous character of Raskolnikov. The result is unsatisfactory on two counts. The first is that Birmingham has great difficulty proving his central claim, that the “gentleman murderer…inspired a masterpiece.” The second is that the claim itself is not a very interesting one. What makes Crime and Punishment so great is not the character of Raskolnikov but the dark moral universe that he inhabits.

It takes quite a while for Birmingham to arrive at the book and Lacenaire. The first half of The Sinner and the Saint is devoted to a truncated biography of Dostoevsky, from his childhood until the time he began work on Crime and Punishment at the age of 44. The author’s life story is one of the strangest and most compelling in literary history, so it’s understandable Birmingham wants to review the greatest hits. He shows us Dostoevsky ranting at his engineering academy classmates about Schiller, fainting in front of a blonde lady at a ball, getting condemned to death for taking part in a radical reading group, receiving a commutation from the czar just before his execution, gawping at fellow convicts during his eight-year sentence in Siberia, returning home to develop a roulette addiction, losing his brother to a liver ailment and his first wife to a disease that made “blood gush from her throat”—you get the idea.

The authoritative biographies of Dostoevsky by Joseph Frank and Leonid Grossman are bound to loom large over anyone who writes about the novelist, so Birmingham focuses on the material most relevant to Crime and Punishment. He interrupts Dostoevsky’s gruesome life story to tell us about the development of nihilism as an intellectual movement in Russia, running from the devilish German egoist Max Stirner to the famous radical thinker Nikolai Chernyshevsky, author of the seminal proto-socialist handbook What Is to Be Done? But Birmingham’s biggest innovation in the first half of the book is to splice into its sections some biographical chapters on Lacenaire, a well-to-do layabout poet who murdered two innocent people in the 1830s to provoke bourgeois society. These chapters build, and soon we begin to realize where they are going: A year before he began work on Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky started studying Lacenaire’s crimes. He did so not for a novel but an article about “instincts and Lacenaire,” an article he abandoned around the time he began Crime and Punishment.

The idea here is clear enough: Birmingham wants to show that Dostoevsky drew on the intellectual precedent of nihilism and the biographical precedent of Lacenaire in creating his famous murderer. The former claim is well-established, as a number of contemporary philosophers espoused an egoism that bears a resemblance to Raskolnikov’s own professed belief system. The latter claim, though, gives Birmingham a bit more trouble—he can’t demonstrate in any meaningful way that Lacenaire was a primary influence on Crime and Punishment.

The first problem is that the differences between Lacenaire and Raskolnikov could not be more pronounced, choice of murder weapon notwithstanding. Lacenaire was a kleptomaniacal dandy who seems to have possessed a sincere enjoyment for violent acts, and he delighted in the hysterical attention he received from the press and the youth of Paris after his capture and imprisonment. Indeed, his prison cell became a kind of literary salon in which he would receive starstruck visitors and dispense memorable mots for dissemination in the newspapers. Raskolnikov shares his philosophy that humankind can be divided into “headsmen and victims,” but in everything else he is Lacenaire’s opposite: He is broke, erratic, self-loathing, and remains unsure about his murderous intentions up until the very moment the axe hits the pawnbroker’s skull. Despite his ranting self-justifications, he has little interest in robbing the pawnbroker—he neglects to take most of her money, for one thing, and he hides what little he does take under a rock in the courtyard of an apartment building.

The second problem is that there were several other obvious models for Raskolnikov, some of them even more interesting than Lacenaire. First there was Orlov, an unrepentant murderer whom Dostoevsky met in Siberia and whom he described as “a new type” of man; then there was Chistov, a religious schismatic (or Raskolnik) who murdered two women with an axe and whose story made Dostoevsky sick for weeks. Even after the first volume of the novel was published, two more sources of inspiration appeared—a law student named Danilov, who murdered a pawnbroker in Moscow (the similarities seem to be a coincidence), and a political radical named Karakozov, who attempted to assassinate the czar in broad daylight. All four of these models made deep impressions on Dostoevsky while he was writing Crime and Punishment, and though Birmingham has to mention them in order to stay faithful to the history, he never explains why Lacenaire gets star billing as Raskolnikov’s prototype, especially since the two are so dissimilar in temperament . (This is to say nothing of Birmingham’s assertion that “the lives of the…poet-murderer and convict-novelist…faintly resemble each other,” a claim in dire need of emphasis on the word “faintly.”)

Birmingham thus understandably leaves it up to the reader to infer the parallels between Raskolnikov and Lacenaire, a tack that doesn’t help out all that much given that Dostoevsky left a trail of evidence that undermines this thesis. The novelist drafted many hundreds of pages of notes for the novel—outlines, philosophical summaries, deleted scenes, alternate endings, even pictographic character sketches—and yet he does not appear to mention Lacenaire in any of them, at least not the ones that Birmingham has excavated for inclusion in his account. Indeed, the notes show that Raskolnikov was not modeled on any specific person or idea but rather hewn over the course of months out of a whole universe of psychological and philosophical material. Like Stavrogin in Demons and Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov, Raskolnikov is not the facsimile of an existing person imported from the real world but an organic creation, the manifestation of a particular species of delusion and bad conscience.

The mystery [of Crime and Punishment] is not who killed the pawnbroker,” Birmingham writes at the start of his book. “The mystery is why.” Is it, though? That’s what every high schooler who reads the novel is told, but in the narrative itself the question is far from mysterious. The erratic Raskolnikov is remarkably consistent throughout the novel’s 500 pages about his two reasons for murdering the pawnbroker: First, he wants to steal some money to raise himself out of poverty, and second, he wants to “take a new step” in the tradition of great historical figures like Napoleon. He offers this reasoning to himself and to the prostitute Sonya, and he even hears it repeated back by the detective who’s trying to goad him into a confession. In one of the novel’s more ham-handed plot points, it’s even revealed that Raskolnikov wrote a law article called “On Crime” in which he justifies murder on the exact same grounds.

When it comes to Crime and Punishment, the question of motive may be the least interesting way to approach the great novel. As Birmingham himself points out, Dostoevsky refrained from bringing most of Raskolnikov’s inner impulses to the surface of the narrative—we don’t see him thinking to himself that he’s falling in love with Sonya, we get almost nothing on the loss of his father, we don’t even know why he dropped out of law school. That Dostoevsky confines all this material to the novel’s subtext but takes great pains to narrate Raskolnikov’s “reasons” for committing the murder should tell us something about where he thought the true heart of the novel lay.

Only once you look beyond Raskolnikov’s motivation can you appreciate Crime and Punishment for what it is: a battle royal between psychologies. The novel isn’t just about the nihilistic murderer’s journey into the arms of the all-virtuous prostitute but also about the cramped social sphere in which both his crime and his redemption take place. You can’t understand Raskolnikov without setting him alongside his dithering mother, his all-seeing younger sister, the babbling and disgraced civil servant Marmeladov, the loving Sonya, and the pretentious fop Luzhin, to say nothing of the depraved and cynical landowner Svidrigailov, a presence so malign and irresistible that he hijacks the last portion of the novel altogether, overpowering Raskolnikov in a tense barroom conversation and stealing the show for a solo scene that leads up to his dramatic suicide. These characters reproduce the social types of their day, but they also transcend them, so that the novel is more a drama of spiritual fragmentation than it is one of ideological competition. Crime and Punishment is about more than one form of spiritual degradation: It asks not just what could drive an individual to murder but also what else can happen in a world where murder is possible. To focus on the historical genesis of Raskolnikov’s motives and methods misses the forest for the trees: The murderer only becomes mysterious and inscrutable in the context of the psychological carnival that surrounds him.

Dostoevsky began Crime and Punishment as a first-person confessional in the tradition of his earlier Notes From Underground, but he changed to the third-person omniscient midway through the writing process, as new characters like Svidrigailov and Marmeladov came to take up more space in the narrative. Just as Dostoevsky had a reason for shifting his novel from the first to the third person, he may also have had a significant reason for calling the book Crime and Punishment instead of, say, Murder and Penal Servitude or even The College Dropout. There is more than one type of crime in the novel, and more than one punishment. It is understandable that Birmingham might want to focus on why Dostoevsky wrote about a man who kills a pawnbroker and gets sent to Siberia, but an attentive reader is apt to find that the novel’s true subject is a different kind of punishment, one that has nothing to do with the judicial system. This is the punishment of consciousness in a raucous world, Dostoevsky tells us; this is the punishment of living in a sinful universe and knowing that the afterlife may be nothing more than, as Svidrigailov puts it, “a room full of spiders.” Readers interested in criminal behavior will find no shortage of contemporary literature that can satisfy their curiosity better than Crime and Punishment or Birmingham’s exegesis on the novel. Those who are interested in the more profound sweep of human experience, though, will find that Dostoevsky still has a great deal to say.