The Readers, part 4

(Click here to read part 3.)

Mislavsky was different from his roommate in a few important ways. He didn't have the nervous fidgets of a typical maladjusted history student. His hair was styled and his clothes looked expensive and harmonious as if he actually knew how to dress and put effort into it. He was able to make eye contact and grip my hand firmly to shake it.

Psychological profiling is not as exact a science as people make it out to be. People think that all sciences should be deterministic: that if someone was killed in a particular way, that they must have been killed by a particular kind of person. If there is evidence X at the crime scene, then it must be a person of type X who did the crime. In fact the world is much more variegated and complex than that would make it seem.

The naive view would have been that Mislavsky was a well-adjusted, good-looking, and successful young man, so he would never be the type of frustrated loner who would commit a senseless murder. The naive view is not always correct.

As we sat down with him, I started thinking through the angles on what to ask him about. There are interrogators who are able to be subtle and gentle, guiding suspects through questioning like a master shepherd guiding a flock toward greener pastures. The suspects follow those masters unquestioningly, if a little stubbornly. I had not mastered that art and so I just laid the cards on the table.

"What is the explanation for you and Edelman following Professor Gardner around and observing him?" I blurted out.

He was taken aback, but he recovered, smiling softly and even chuckling a little. "So someone noticed us. I see. Well I'll be straight with you. Edelman and I felt frustrated about our lack of progress. Edelman tried to get me heated up about doing something to make Gardner sick. We wouldn't have ever killed the guy, we just thought that if he were sick for a while, we'd get a break from his demands about our schedules, and anyway maybe it would cut him down to size a little."

He said all this to us with a straight face and without breaking eye contact, as if he weren't deeply ashamed of planning to harm a human being. I started psychologically profiling him again. Maladjusted losers sometimes commit murder to strike out at a world in which they had failed. Handsome confident men, by contrast, sometimes commit murder because of their certainty that they deserve the world to always bend to their will and their delusion that they are intelligent enough to get away with it. But of course I couldn't rely on that profile either. At some point I would need evidence and certainty of my own.

"You two were thinking of poisoning him?" I asked.

"Edelman was," he said, deflecting the blame. "He was going to put something in his food. But he always buys his lunches and eats alone and we couldn't think of a simple way to get access to his meals. I gave up on the idea, and I had no idea Edelman had continued to think about it."

I paused, thinking of where to go next. Denial is easy enough when there is no evidence pointint to you. Deflection is also natural. I thought back to Gardner's cluttered desk. What was it I had seen there? The beat cop had mocked my interest in his dusty historical treatises. But I knew that for these academics, dusty treatises constitute their world. An end to the possibility of publishing a manuscript is a little part of their world dying. The effects of their world were all texts, and it could be that the causes of their world and their actions were texts too. What text could cause someone to die?

"What was the topic of your dissertation?" I asked.

Just like Bartram, he was eager to talk about this. His eyes lit up a little.

"Well," he began, already seeming to channel Bartram's pomposity. "It's about the diplomatic relations between the different monastic orders in the medieval period."

"You mean the different types of Catholic monks?" I asked. Academic research was one of those rare things that managed to be extremely interesting and extremely inconsequential at the same time.

"That's right," he affirmed. "I do a case study of some interactions between the Dominicans and the Franciscans."

I looked over at his bookshelf. I saw some titles that I didn't recognize, and some that I did. When I had been in college, I had loved reading Umberto Eco books, and I saw several there on his shelf. And that was the moment I solved the case.

"I see Umberto Eco on your shelf. Have you ever read The Name of the Rose?" I asked. At the same moment, I pulled out my phone and surreptitiously texted one of the beat cops: "were there black marks on Gardner's fingers?" Mislavsky started talking about Eco and The Name of the Rose as I did so.

"Eco created worlds from words. His erudition was so great... if you think of an idea as a brushstroke, some authors make miniatures, but Eco made murals. You could get lost in the great, marvelous textual worlds he created."

"And you did get lost in one of them," I muttered, looking at the positive reply I had just gotten from the beat cop.

"Huh?" he said, feigning innocence, but showing signs of panic.

"I like Eco too," I said. "I read The Name of the Rose in college. I watched the movie too. Anything with Sean Connery is good in my book," I added, thinking to myself that anything with a sex scene made entirely from literary and scriptural references is also worth reading.

"The Name of the Rose creates a remarkable world," I continued. "A snowy mountaintop, a huge monastery, a wealthy order of Dominicans. Preparation for an important diplomatic event, interrupted by a gruesome murder. The Dominicans call in a Franciscan to help solve the murder, which then turns into a long, symbolic spree."

"You know your medieval murder mysteries," Mislavsky said, trying to pass off a nonchalant chuckle.

I was emboldened by his evident nervousness. "I see your copy of The Name of the Rose is tattered and you've clearly read it often. And your dissertation is about it in some way: the relations of Dominicans and Franciscans are central to the novel. Eco said that the first several dozen pages are boring because they are the reader's penance. Lots of people never get past those parts. But I got through my penance. And having gotten through, I learned of good and evil. I know," I said, looking him square in the eye, "who the murderer is, and I know how he did it."

I didn't wait for my partner to react, or for Mislavsky to make excuses. "The killer was immersed for his whole life in books. He got lost in the world of the texts. Like many intellectuals before him, he began to believe that ideas are more important than people, and that the ink of the text should be valued more than the breath of life. He forgot about the center of the world, and the blood and the flesh and the dirt and the cool hardness of reality."

I brought it home. "He put a nearly transparent solution on each page of a book, then let it dry, barely visible. Not a book, but a potential book, or a former book. A text. When the reader licked his finger to turn the pages, he got some of that dried solution on his fingers. When he licked his finger again, the solution got on his tongue. The more pages he read, the more he ingested through the skin and the mouth."

"You're talking about the character in Eco's book: Jorge of Burgos," Mislavsky tried to deflect. "The murderer in the book."

"I am talking of the murderer. And the murderer is trapped in a book. And the murderer is you," I said. "You observed the way Gardner read, and you must have seen that he turned the pages with a licked finger, just like Bartram. You know, people are shocked that they used to burn books, as if they thought that no bad thing could ever come from a book. But if no bad thing could come from a book, that would mean that no good thing could come from a book. If books can heal us, they can also hurt us. You wrote a book that lacked the potency to change minds. But you could use ingredients from your innocent apothecary roommate to give your book the power to destroy bodies. In your world of books outranking people, that was the natural thing to do."

From there, it all proceeded like clockwork. Gathering evidence from the apartment and the crime scene, taking statements from witnesses, and eventually getting a confession from Mislavsky. In fact, he was almost eager to confess. Students are often eager to get credit for their accomplishments, especially accomplishments that make them feel like they are clever.

Prospero said that the ideas and characters presented in texts are such stuff as dreams are made on. What he left out is that they can also be the stuff that nightmares are made on. Mislavsky had written a mediocre dissertation, but more importantly he had authored a dismal and evil life, that had culminated most recently in an ugly, unecessary murder.

I went back to my house, and sat on my couch. It was a soft couch, but harder than any idea. My house was not lavishly decorated but it was at least more real than any philosophy. I put my feet up, and appreciated them, not for their beauty but for their service to me, and even for their aches and pains. I leaned back and opened up a book and read.


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