Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The author is dead, claims the post-modern
theorist.  Meaning is suspect, and the author’s
intentions no more than a comforting myth.  But in
this novel, the postmodern theorist is
the one lying dead on the ground, and
the author of the crime has very much
turned intentions into actuality.  Unless
the detective finds some clear and un-
ambiguous meanings in a confusing ar-
ray of texts, there is every chance that
someone else will get killed.

Fortunately our detective, Norman "Justin" Rhodes, has
a graduate degree in literature from Yale.  But he studied
drama and focused on writing plays, mostly ignoring
fashionable theories from France.  Ah, he now must
brush up on his Derrida and Barthes, as well as collect
fingerprints and interrogate suspects.   As he will find, in
this crime case, explication of text will prove to be more
important than search warrants or Miranda rights.

Rhodes is helped along by Professor Norman Holland—
the
character Norman Holland, not to be confused with
the author of this book, who shares the same name.  
Both Holland the character
and Holland the author rely
upon unconventional teaching techniques in their so-
called Delphi seminars.  By asking his students to write
freeform "squibs" about various texts, and circulating
their papers among all seminar participants, the professor
hopes to highlight the diversity of readers’ responses to
any given piece of writing.  But this is much more than
standard issue lit crit: a heavy dose of psychology
permeates the proceedings, and at times its hard to
determine whether students are reacting to each others’
classwork, or to their personalities and characters.    

When one of the grad students drops over dead in the
classroom, and the medical examiner confirms poison as
the cause, the disputes over textual interpretation take on
ominous significance.  The victim, Patricia Hassler, had
made enemies of almost everyone she had come across—
starting with Professor Holland, whose reader-response
theory ran counter to Hassler’s firm allegiance to
deconstruction.  But other participants in the seminar
had also run afoul of her in various ways—but did any
one of them have sufficient motive to commit murder?

The various suspects employ the jargon they've learned
from literary theory in their defense.  "You're
ontologizing these suspicions, Lieutenant," a student
declares, when the police find a bottle of poison in his
room.  "This is simply formalist-humanist-psychologizing
hypostatized."  At one point, a police sergeant returns
from interrogating a grad student with a question for his
superior about the abbess… as in “the abbess between
every crime and any possible evidence of that crime.”

Holland aims to do more than construct a whodunit
here, and wants to employ the detective story as a
platform for his own particular brand of reader-response
theory.   Those raised on Sherlock Holmes and Hercule
Poirot may find this book slow going when it veers off
into theoretical discussions, but on the whole Holland
does a credible job of integrating his conceptual
frameworks into the unfolding crime story.  Who would
have thought that so many different readings of a poem
by Denise Levertov could play into the solution of a
murder mystery?  But when the mystery is finally
solved—after plenty of misdirection and more than a
few red herrings—literary theory clearly contributes to
the resolution.

Then again, literary theory helped cause all the
commotion in the first place.  So you be the judge on
whether it’s best to take your text with or without
explication.  Readers of
Death in a Delphi Seminar don’t
have much choice.   The novel is presented as a mere
compilation of texts—police transcripts, journal entries,
newspaper articles, and the like.  Many of the texts
interpret, or contradict, other texts.  And only the
shrewdness of the detective, assisted by the interpretive
skills of the able professor—no bumbling Watson
routine for this sidekick!—turns this melee of
epistemological uncertainties into a case ready for the D.
A.’s office.

Holland (the author this time—if, in fact, there is real
construct behind the term "author") does an impressive
job on all counts here.  The detective story is artfully
constructed, with a careful layering of clues and enigmas
that would make Agatha Christie proud.  And the theory
here lives up to the Nietzschean mandate: namely that,
when it doesn’t kill you, it quite likely makes you
stronger.  


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
Death in a Delphi Seminar
by Norman N. Holland
RETURN TO HOME PAGE
Click on image to purchase
ROGUES GALLERY:
NORMAN N. HOLLAND
Professor Norman N. Holland (born 1927)
made himself a murder suspect in his own
novel
Death a Delphi Seminar.  He then
exonerated himself.  
But still, you should
be careful were you
sit when attending any
of his seminars. Remem-
ber that he is an expert
on the “disappearance
of the subject”—as
demonstrated in his
books
The I and The
Critical I
.  Just make sure
you aren't that subject.  

Holland is the author of fifteen books, and
the professor's wide-ranging career has
found him weighing in on motion pictures,
Shakespeare, the brain, reader-response
theory, poetry, psychoanalysis…and the
Delphi seminar methodology, which takes
seriously the ancient injunction to “know
thyself.”  Could this be the same  Norman
Holland who also got a degree in
engineering from M.I.T. (1947) and a law
degree from Harvard (1950)?   Is it even
the same Norman Holland who shows up as
a character in his novel?  Does even the
author exist, let alone his subject?  Read the
texts and be your own judge.  And watch
out for small sharp objects.
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
Further Clues:

Norman Holland's home page

About Delphi Seminars
Visit our companion sites

The New Canon
A guide to outstanding works of
fiction published since 1985

Conceptual Fiction
Celebrating masterworks of science
fiction, fantasy, alternate history and
magical realism

Great Books Guide
A look at contemporary currents in
literature
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia
Recommended Sites:

Conceptual Fiction
Great Books Guide
The New Canon
Ted Gioia's homepage
Ted Gioia (on Twitter)

American Fiction Notes
The Art of Reading
The Big Read
Blographia Literaria
Books, Inq.
Bookslut
Booksquare
A Commonplace Blog
Conversational Reading
Crimespree Magazine
Critical Mass
Dana Gioia
The Elegant Variation
Fictionaut
In Search of the Classic Mystery
Joseph Peschel
Light Reading
The Literary Saloon
Los Angeles Review of Books
Maud Newton
The Millions
The Misread City
Nota Bene Books
Open Letters Monthly
Readerville
The Reading Experience
Reviews and Responses
Tipping My Fedora
Waggish
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd
Hawksmoor

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
Leviathan
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
Noir

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado

Return to Home Page

Contact Info:
tedgioia@hotmail.com
www.tedgioia.com

Disclosure: This site and its sister sites may
receive promotional copies of works under
review and discussion.