Clever, investigative journalist Stephanie Delacourt is sent from Paris to the mythical Santa Varvara to cover police inspector, Northrop Rilsky, in his quest to solve a series of high profile murders with political overtones. The back of each victim is “signed” with a carved figure 8 (or infinity?). At the same time, the distinguished historian Sebastian Chrest-Jones (CJ) disappears. Unbeknownst to everyone but the reader, he has just murdered his Chinese mistress, who is pregnant with his child.

Anxious that CJ has come to harm, his wife appeals to Rilksy, drawing on the connection that he is a step-relation of the missing man. She has been conducting an affair with CJ’s assistant who soon becomes another corpse signed with an 8. Suspicions fall on CJ.

Distracted from the murders she was to cover, Stephanie becomes increasingly involved in CJ’s historical research on the first crusade and the twelfth-century Anna Comnena, considered Europe’s first woman historian. In tracing the connections that CJ has drawn between Anna Comnena and one of his own (and Rilsky’s) ancestors she “derives” his obsessions and his likely whereabouts.

Late discovery of mistress’s corpse offers bizarre genetic clues about the identity of the serial killer and the paternity of the child, again tying the two mysteries into one. A thrilling climax is set in monastery of Notre Dame du Puy en Velay.


If you are looking for a diverting murder mystery, this book is not for you. If however, you like your critical analysis spiced with suspense, then consider Murder in Byzantium. With its convoluted plot, dream-like prose (brilliantly translated), and layered interconnections, it is a challenging if engaging narrative. In short, it is Byzantine.

Kristeva is an acclaimed psychoanalyst, philosopher and feminist who has contributed to the French semiotic tradition. Her mysteries are, in effect, psychoanalytic essays on identity, insanity, and communication.

Numerous plotlines are tantalizingly revealed and concealed in equal proportions. The narrative voice shifts often, from first person to third. Like a guidebook, maps and images of Bulgarian art and architecture enliven the text. Crusades –as moral invasions with devastating consequences—extend from the distant past to the police investigation and the serial killer. Humour and irony lurk in the grim details; at least twice, Kristeva playfully cites herself (167, 228).

Rilsky fears that he himself could be the ‘8’ murderer in a Jekyl-and-Hyde duality. That unknown killer is considered by all to be mad; yet, the reader glimpses how he “reasons” through history and his own delusions to motives that can be conceived if not condoned.

Used in Kristeva's other novels, Santa Varvara—where east meets west--is a thinly veiled stand in for her native Bulgaria, all too often neglected in histories of Europe. Large portions of the work are given to describing the first crusade and the real Anna Comnena’s historical apologies for her father and family. History is a product of the times and places in which it is imagined and of the people and collectivities who write it. Just as identity involves the past, history is about the present.


Translated from the French by C. Jon Delogu.


Columbia University Press

Place Published

New York



Page Count