Literary Theory Meets Murder Mystery

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 8, 1998 | Go to article overview

Literary Theory Meets Murder Mystery


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


At the nether edge of the reviewer's trade, below the read, below the skim and below the 15-minutes riffling through a book's pages, there is something called the first-sentence test. Julia Kristeva provides an arresting example of a first sentence that passes:

"Gloria was lying in a pool of blood with her head cut off."

That sounds like an invitation to spend a few hours indulging what a newspaper editor in the novel calls "the crude logic of the run-of-the mill detective story." And it is, right down to an Agatha Christie-style scene in which the police captain - whom the editor was disparaging - assembles the dead woman's dinner guests at the scene of the crime to quizz each in turn.

There even is a gifted amateur to out-sleuth the professional sleuth. But there the "crude logic" ends, for she is Stephanie Delacour, daughter of the former French ambassador to Santa Vavara in Miss Kristeva's Ovidian allegory "The Old Man and the Wolves" (1994).

Miss Kristeva is France's high priestess of critical theory, the fuser of semiotics and psychoanalysis in what she calls "semanalyse" and the former protegee of Lucien Goldmann and Roland Barthes. Her appropriation of the traditional English mystery genre in her new novel, translated by Barbara Bray with customary elan, is a tart, suspenseful read and, with what Edgar Allan Poe called "the imp of the perverse," is ideally suited to the writer's larger purpose.

The book offers an even more accessible entry point than did "Wolves" to the Bulgarian-born intellectual's steely vision of a world where murder helps assure the continuity of humankind amid "a whole network of causes, a multiple logic, a polyphony" that defies questions like true or false?

In "Wolves" Stephanie investigated the mysterious and sinister phenomenon in Santa Varvara, Miss Kristeva's imagined seaside locale, of people turning into wolves. "Possessions" is the sequel to that book, in which Stephanie returns to the corrupt little country situated between cold-war East and West to write an article for the Paris magazine Events. By attending Gloria Harrison's Saturday night dinner party, Stephanie stumbles into the case of her friend's untimely and horrific death.

Also at the table that night was Larry Smirnoff, the editor with a low opinion of police detective work. He believes it is the press who really solve crimes, crime in his theory being always traceable to corruption in high places. Stephanie certainly doesn't doubt her detective powers, but unlike Smirnoff she is not bound by any self-serving theory.

Northrop Rilsky, the captain of police and foil to Smirnoff, loathes journalists and is very ambivalent about "soul doctors" like Igor Zorin, another of his suspects. A sympathetic character up to a point, Rilsky is the child of musicians and a music lover. He invites Stephanie to concerts and makes other old-fashioned passes.

She is not above responding but harbors an acid view of Rilsky's professional capacity. His method is to find the criminal, then stop his investigation before official corruption can be exposed (real estate scandals are the latest thing in tourist-driven Santa Varvara). He is "a saint fallen among rogues yet able to live with their villainy."

Gloria is the posthumous star of the show, and it is the course of her life in Santa Varvara, reeling backward in Staphanie's telling, that lies at the heart of the murder case and Miss Kristeva's little psychological-social excursion. The murdered woman had been a beauty, and by losing her head she had become anonymous, or almost:

"For, head or no head, Gloria Harrison was easily recognizable. True, her auburn hair and sea-green eyes were no longer there to prove who she was, but the strong fingers, the shapely gymnast's thighs, the slim ankles, . . . And that unmistakable bosom was encased, perfectly as usual, in the bodice of an ivory satin evening dress, on the left side of which spread a crimson stain. …

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