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—
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

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
Death in a Delphi Seminar
by Norman N. Holland
Click on image to purchase
Professor Norman N. Holland (born 1927)
made himself a murder suspect in his own
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
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
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and postmodern approaches to stories
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Further Clues:

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