Sampling Amanda Cross

Looking for something to read the other day, since I had fewer than a hundred waiting candidates, I was browsing the Librarian’s Virago shelves. I’d looked several times at three mystery novels by Amanda Cross but never to the point of actually reading them. This seemed as if it might be the time.

‘Amanda Cross’ was, in fact, the pseudonym of Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, a professor of literature at Columbia University, where she taught from 1960 to 1992, publishing several volumes of feminist literary criticism and fourteen mystery novels featuring Kate Fansler, an amateur sleuth who is also, curiously enough, a professor of literature at a New York university.

The Amanda Cross books are upbeat, civilized, witty, highly readable – and well-populated with literary references, quotations and allusions. I’m not sure how I resisted for so long the first one I read, given that it’s called The James Joyce Murder. It has a prologue, an epilogue – and fifteen chapters, all with the titles of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners. The order of her chapters differs from the order of the stories in Joyce’s book but all are used and, often very cleverly, the content of the chapter related to the story which gives it its title. There are also characters in the novel with names familiar to a reader of Joyce (in addition to Grace and Eveline): Kate, Molly, Lenehan, Mulligan, Eugene Stratton.

In the last one I read, A Death in the Faculty (1981), which centres on the first appointment of a woman to a tenured position in the Harvard English department—as, I gather, Heilbrun was the first woman to receive tenure in Columbia’s English department—Kate Fansler, while listening to the speeches by graduating students, recalls an event she has read about that took place at the Commencement of 1969. A law student had ‘begun his speech with a call to law and order: “The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes, danger from within and without. We need law and order! Without law and order our nation cannot survive!”’ From the audience there is ‘wild applause’, after which the student continues: ‘“Those words were spoken in 1932 by Adolf Hitler.”’ The writer adds: ‘Kate would have given a great deal to have heard the silence that followed.’

Fifty years on from that address, it doesn’t take much effort to see the same tactics employed by Hitler still being used, most obviously and unashamedly in the United States. Still, even here, those Londoners with just a smattering of historical knowledge or, in some cases, long memories, who had thought their streets were cleared of fascists many years ago, have recently discovered that this is not in fact the case.