Essay 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 unambiguous meanings
in a confusing array 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 stronger.  

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His
latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by
Oxford University Press.

Essay published August 23, 2011
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
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
Further Clues:

Norman Holland's home page

About Delphi Seminars
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