In September 1865, Fyodor Dostoevsky reached his lowest ebb. The 43-year-old Russian was holed up in a cheap hotel room in Wiesbaden, the spa town in central Germany where he had come to recoup his fortunes at the roulette table. The military engineer turned writer had been in debt most of his adult life, having exhausted the lines of credit through which Russians kept their sclerotic financial system going — personal loans, promissory notes, even pawnshop tickets. A final devastating loss at the tables left Dostoevsky destitute, whereupon the Hotel Victoria promptly stopped providing its troublesome guest with candles and clean sheets.

In one last desperate throw of the dice, Dostoevsky decided to embark on a new novel, even though it had been some years since he had enjoyed critical or commercial success. It would be a story featuring a hideous murder, but there would be one significant departure from the usual crime format. The story would be told from the murderer’s point of view, with the result that readers would find Raskolnikov, whose name means “schism” or “split,” sympathetic and even admirable. They might wonder if they were capable, in extremis, of doing something similar themselves.

In his tautly constructed narrative, “The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece,” Kevin Birmingham traces the story of how “Crime and Punishment” came into being, wrenched up from the feeble frame of Dostoevsky, whose financial misery was compounded by his escalating epilepsy and grief over the recent deaths of his beloved brother and estranged wife.

Published in installments in the Russian Messenger, the novel was an immediate success. Crime fiction was all the rage in Europe: Dostoevsky’s new novel would share page space with Wilkie Collins’s similarly unsettling “Armadale.” More than that, though, in “Crime and Punishment” Dostoevsky unveiled an entirely new literary sensibility. Telling the story from the point of view of a protagonist who is alienated from society, he created a narrative in which stable egos dissolve and tangle with the external world so that the distinction between “inside” and “outside” no longer adheres. It was a technique that James Joyce and Virginia Woolf would bring to perfection, but not for another 50 years.

It is also a technique that Birmingham employs in this masterly book. As narrator, he sits as tightly on Dostoevsky’s shoulder as Dostoevsky does on Raskolnikov’s, so that we feel as if we are seeing the world — a terrifying, claustrophobic world — from their doubled perspective. Birmingham sketches out Russia’s mid-century byzantine chaos with a deft hand, up to the point in 1849 when Dostoevsky was sentenced to death for associating with the Petrashevsky Circle, a progressive group that advocated the ending of serfdom and other measures inimical to czarist autocracy. Marched to the killing yard, the 28-year-old Dostoevsky was spared at the last minute, his sentence commuted to four years’ hard labor in a Siberian prison followed by several years of compulsory military service. It was in end-of-the-world Omsk, bunking down with 54 convicted murderers, that Dostoevsky became fascinated with accounts of intentional killing. “Fictional murders, from that point on, seemed cartoonish,” reports Birmingham, who has an uncanny ability to access his hero’s inner world.

When it came to source material for “Crime and Punishment,” Dostoevsky supplemented the stories of his prison buddies with a written account of the minor French poet Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, who in 1836 was convicted of murdering a scam artist. Lacenaire’s motive was not revenge, even though he had first come across Jean-François Chardon while serving in prison, so much as a desire to see what it felt like to kill. Also, by scooping up Chardon’s ill-gotten gains, much of them acquired through blackmailing gay men, Lacenaire convinced himself that he was performing a public service. The fact that this would also involve murdering Chardon’s elderly mother, who lived with him, was merely a minor detail.

Despite his crime being essentially back-street and sordid, Lacenaire had the style and wit to turn his trial and subsequent appointment with the guillotine into a kind of performance art. Birmingham has enormous fun braiding Lacenaire’s outrageous story into the altogether more dour trajectories of Dostoevsky and Raskolnikov. This is not as arbitrary as it sounds, since Russia had long looked to France as a warning about what to expect when a totalitarian regime topples into the revolutionary abyss.

“The Sinner and the Saint” is gripping, even for those who have not read “Crime and Punishment” for years or, indeed, have never even skimmed it. Birmingham provides just enough of Dostoevsky’s plot to make the novel intelligible without feeling the need to spend pages on deadening summary (so often a failing in books about books). Particularly fascinating is the scrutiny he gives to Dostoevsky’s working notebooks, revealing the many tortured iterations before he settled on the novel’s final form. In some drafts, Raskolnikov commits suicide, while in others he heroically redeems himself by rescuing people from a fire. The French writer Hélène Cixous put it best when she described Dostoevsky’s notebooks as “the crazy and tumultuous forge, where Love and Hate embrace, rolling around on the ground in convulsions which thwart all calculation and all hope.”

In fact, when it came to Dostoevsky’s external life, there was ultimately hope, if not exactly calculation. Birmingham writes with obvious relief at the way “Crime and Punishment” marked a turning point in his hero’s real-world fortunes.

While producing the next installment for serialization, Dostoevsky was obliged to break off to complete another novel quickly to pay a long-standing debt. A friend suggested that he work with a stenographer to speed things up, which resulted in Dostoevsky’s introduction to the delightful Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, who visited him every day with her shorthand notebook. Within a month the two were engaged, oblivious to the 25 years between them.

We know from Birmingham’s introduction that this was merely the overture to happier times. Three more masterpieces would follow — “The Idiot,” “Demons” and “The Brothers Karamazov” — and, although life would never be easy for Dostoevsky, he had all the things which had seemed impossible when he was holed up in the Hotel Victoria: a wife he loved, children and literary stardom. More than that, though, by the time of his death in 1881 at the age of 59, he would also have the first glimmerings that his new way of inside-out writing would become nothing less than the foundation stone of literary modernism.

THE SINNER AND THE SAINT

Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece

By Kevin Birmingham. Penguin Press.
432 pp. $30