Adam Ash

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Bookplanet: mon dieu! post-modern theorist Julia Kristeva has written a detective novel, “Murder in Byzantium”

Mystery! Why is Julia Kristeva, icon of postmodern theory, writing detective novels? -- by Celia Wren

A SERIAL KILLER is stalking the city, leaving his signature, the number 8, written in blood on the victims' bodies. Amid the ensuing media frenzy, a detective and his female sidekick track various leads, including the trail of a missing professor whose mistress turns up strangled. The murder investigation eventually involves DNA testing, computer hacking, a creepy religious cult, and a shootout in a parking lot with a semiautomatic.

This may sound like the outline of a new Patricia Cornwell potboiler, but it's actually the plot of a new book by Julia Kristeva, the French psychoanalyst and writer who is one of the icons of postmodern theory. In a four-decade-long career that has made her a household name in academic circles, the Bulgarian-born Kristeva has blazed through semiotics, linguistics, and feminist, psychoanalytic, and literary theory.

Recently, though, she has funneled her cogitations into fiction. This month, Columbia University Press is bringing out her latest novel, ''Murder in Byzantium," a 250-page thriller-of-ideas (published in France in 2004, and translated into English by C. Jon Delogu) that ruminates about globalization, memory, the Crusades, Europe, love, motherhood, and modern spiritual malaise.

Of course, the mystery genre has long attracted intellectuals. Literati like G.K. Chesterton and W.H. Auden championed the form, and scholars like F.R. Jameson and Jacques Lacan have analyzed it. ''It has always been safer for academics to confess that they like to read detective fiction than any other genre fiction," says Maureen Corrigan, who teaches a course in detective fiction at Georgetown University.

''It's the dramatization of thinking," she explains, noting that the cerebral activity of the detective-"sifting through the clues; thinking about them; trying to apply reason"-appeals to brainy folk. ''The detective," she says, ''always has to be a good reader, in a literal sense and larger metaphorical sense."

That's certainly the case with Kristeva's new novel, which is replete with classic mystery-novel elements: clues that turn out to be red herrings, insidery talk about fingerprint analysis, even the archetypal figure of a cultured detective reminiscent of Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey or P.D. James's poet policeman Adam Dalgleish. Kristeva's flatfoot is Northrop Rilsky, a police commissioner in the fictional European country of Santa Varvara (think of a sprawling film noir Monte Carlo). Playing Watson to Rilsky's Holmes is yet another classic whodunit type, a resourceful amateur sleuth: journalist Stephanie Delacour, the book's first-person narrator. The two have a love affair and, at his suggestion, she starts packing a Colt, an accoutrement that proves handy as the plot gathers steam.

The book isn't all hard-boiled sensationalism, however. In a key story line, the missing professor, Sebastian Chrest-Jones, travels through Europe, retracing the footsteps of a Crusader ancestor and a Byzantine princess. His adventures provide a launching pad for musings about religion, multiculturalism, gender relations, and other weighty matters-filtered through the consciousness of various characters. As the author puts it in one typically abstruse passage: ''The malaise of a fatherless nomad who is no dupe but who nevertheless drifts, the spasm that strangles all real presence of love. . .[Sebastian] finally transcended all that in the ocean of his crusader story."

In an interview conducted by e-mail from Paris, where she lives, Kristeva explained why she is drawn to the gumshoe paradigm. ''The detective novel deals with the radical evil that is the desire of death," she observed. However, ''contrary to other genres that lull the reader with various illusions, the detective novel is an optimistic genre that says: You cannot eradicate evil, but you can know where it comes from by leading an investigation. This is the optimism of curiosity, of awareness, of questioning."

''Murder in Byzantium" is not Kristeva's first foray into crime-story territory. Delacour and Rilsky both turned up in her previous novel, 1996's ''Possessions," which opens with a description of a decapitated corpse and goes on to deal with motherhood, good and evil, and modern psychic pain. Delacour was also a protagonist in Kristeva's 1991 mystery-inflected parable, ''The Old Man and the Wolves."

Yet according to Jennifer Crewe, Kristeva's editor at Columbia University Press, ''Murder in Byzantium" is ''the novel with the most potential to break out." She admits the book's intellectual quotient is high: ''You could compare it to Susan Sontag, Umberto Eco, theorists who are developing their theoretical ideas through the means of fiction," says Crewe. But in contrast to Kristeva's earlier novels, ''Murder in Byzantium" is stylistically more ''polished," Crewe says, and ''it's pretty action-packed."

The book also differs from her earlier novels in its ''historic project" (as Kristeva puts it) namely its preoccupation with the era of the First Crusade. Given the meteoric success of certain mysteries and thrillers with historical themes-"The Name of the Rose," ''The Rule of Four," ''The Da Vinci Code"-Kristeva's publisher may be hoping that her book, too, has crossover appeal.

''We're not just marketing it to scholars," says Crewe. She points with relish to one early reader response: A review in Canada's Globe and Mail glowingly compared Stephanie Delacour to video game and movie action heroine Lara Croft.

Whatever its marketing potential, though, the book has a solidly intellectual framework. Kristeva's fiction is an extension of her theory, says Lawrence D. Kritzman, a Dartmouth professor who recently edited ''The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought." ''She brings her theoretical interests into the writing of novels," he says, ''and in a certain sense, the novels almost become laboratories for exploration.

''Also don't forget," he adds, ''Freud in his writings says some place that the psychologist is both an archeologist and Sherlock Holmes."

(Celia Wren is a Virginia-based writer who covers the arts.)


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