Bad Chemistry

Elizabeth Judd reviews 'Bad Chemistry' by Gary Krist.

Published January 20, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

When an award-winning writer like Gary Krist abandons the obscurity of literary short stories for a highly visible genre like the thriller, the motive is no mystery: royalties, fame, maybe even a six-figure movie option.

No question, "Bad Chemistry" is intended to be a conventional suspense yarn with mayhem, dead bodies, etc. The heroine is Kate Theodorus, an ex-cop turned social worker who marries Joel Baker, a yuppie who works in importing. At a birthday party for the couple's dog, one of the canine guests is set on fire and later that night Joel disappears. Kate is forced to reevaluate her married life when the police find mind-altering drugs in Joel's file cabinet and then link the mutilated body of a murdered biochemist to her husband's business. Desperate for answers, Kate begins investigating the smart drugs that Joel's company (its motto -- "Better Living Through Biochemistry") sells over the Internet.

Krist has written a murder mystery with literary aspirations. "Bad Chemistry" explores epistemological questions, such as, what do we really know about our nearest and dearest? Early in their marriage, Kate views Joel as "a sixties student radical turned eighties entrepreneur turned nineties ... what? Socially conscious businessman? Neo-capitalist rebel? Kate didn't know what to call him." From there on in, he's increasingly unfathomable. That's OK, because Kate has lost touch with her own roots. She describes her visit to an art gallery as "a self-conscious act. The Theodoruses weren't a museum-going family. They were cops. They watched television."

The high-mindedness of Krist's investigation of character and self-knowledge isn't completely successful. Krist is too attuned to the Zeitgeist -- ex-hippies who want to reengineer psyches through designer drugs, the countercultural possibilities of the Internet and yesterday's radicals making uneasy peace with today's material success. His novel feels cynical and slight as literary fiction goes. Moreover, Krist's pseudo-hip cocktail of fantastic pharmaceuticals and computer hacking is sometimes dry and humorless, especially when held up against the ironic, tough-talking fun of classic thrillers. Still, the novel is taut, well-paced, and occasionally moving as it reflects on the fearsome project of loving another person. When Krist writes, "What a mystery marriage is ... any marriage, every marriage," it carries more weight than you'd expect from the next Hollywood blockbuster.

By Elizabeth Judd

Elizabeth Judd lives in Washington. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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