One of the conceits that Alfred Hitchcock nursed was the desire to make a film in which the hero casually murdered a lover in the first reel and then carried on as normal without losing the audience's sympathy. Patricia Highsmith achieved this in her Ripley novels, and her essay "Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction" provides the epigraph to chapter four of Julia Kristeva's fourth novel, Murder in Byzantium - a novel that opens with the most likeable of her main characters killing a Chinese lab assistant, Fa Chang, after having sex.
Kristeva is a legendary French psychoanalyst, critic and professor of linguistics. She was taught by Roland Barthes and is a central figure in French poststructuralist thought. Her novels are less well-known outside France, but are a significant part of her oeuvre. They feature Stephanie Delacour, a Parisian amateur detective and reporter whom Kristeva describes as an alter ego. She also considers herself to be several other characters, such as the decapitated body of a gifted translator in the previous volume, Possessions - an honest admission of the narcissism essential to the creative process.
The novels take place in the imaginary Santa Varvara, a corrupt seaside resort somewhere in Eastern Europe. Santa Varvara has porous boundaries and is described as emblematic of the global village. Everything that happens in the world, from terrorism to developments in the mass media, has an influence on this resort. There is a deliberate parallel between Delacour's attempt to resolve mysteries and understand her surroundings through journalism, and Kristeva's use of the detective novel to express a truth that might be obscured in a different genre.
Kristeva's detective novels, however, are very different from those of most other practitioners. Delacour suggests that she is not "matronly enough to make one of those big tomes that Anglo-Saxon women put out with all the bile and bitter vaginal juices coming in razor cuts and gunfire". With this damning incitement of popular crime fiction Kristeva establishes that this mystery is intended for an audience of jaded intellectuals rather than the mass market. There is nothing wrong with this, especially given that the book is such fun. But Delacour's argument that there are few serious readers and far too many novels, while probably true, seems unnecessarily elitist - although she does get in an equally brilliant dismissal of literary fiction as "the rhetorical mode par excellence of perverts".
When Kristeva's novel works best, it is with a post-punk energy similar to that of the late Kathy Acker (minus the porn). Although no one would mistake this for a mainstream thriller, Kristeva doesn't skimp on plot or suspense. The novel is packed with doubles, secrets, shootings and random murders, with two main plots driving the action.
A killer known as the Purifier is murdering members of a religious sect, and a professor named Sebastian Chrest-Jones (the uncle of Northrop Rilsky, Delacour's sleuthing partner and love interest), disappears while working on a novel about the Byzantine princess-historian Anna Comnena. Comnena did exist, and Kristeva goes into great detail about her Alexiad, packing the novel with descriptions of the First Crusade and Byzantium era without ever allowing this detail to swamp the narrative.
There are brief mentions of the Raelians (the religious movement beloved of Michel Houellebecq); as well as lots of self-referential comedy, including references to Kristeva's husband, Philippe Sollers. We have an update on Jerry, the son Delacour adopted, and enough bracing intelligence for this novel to work as much as critical theory as a detective story. Buy it for the Dan Brown fan in your life.
Matt Thorne's latest novel is 'Cherry' (Phoenix)Reuse content