Over recent weeks, I have reread the Amanda Cross mysteries, start to finish, in the order in which they were published. The series stars Kate Fansler, a well-heeled English professor in New York City with a taste for martinis and a penchant for tripping over dead bodies. They were written by the late feminist literary critic Carolyn Heilbrun, also an English professor in New York City. Heilbrun published pseudonymously because she thought her academic colleagues would pooh-pooh her fiction writing (indeed, she didn't own up to the mysteries until she got tenure at Columbia).
Although I love these books, I stumbled a few times over their occasional heavy-handedness. To wit, in Death in a Tenured Position (1981), probably the best-known title in the series, Kate finds herself in Cambridge, Massachusetts, "helping a group of radical sisters" who live in "a Commune. Not religious, just a group of women who support each other." One day, Kate sees one of said radicals, Joan Theresa, walking out of a shop on Brattle Street: "It was a flower shop which also sold beautiful pieces of fruit; by these Joan Theresa had been tempted. She … emerged from the store eating an apple … . Joan offered Kate a bite of the apple … . Kate took a large bite." Not exactly subtle. Okay, so you can date Death in a Tenured Position to a very precise moment in American feminism. (Did I mention that Joan Theresa is named Joan Theresa because she traded her patriarchal last name for her mother's first name? And her dog is named Jocasta.) But that date-it-to-the-hour-it-was-written quality is precisely the reason to reread Amanda Cross. The novels are as good a way as any into how Manhattan changed in the decades after 1960, how the culture of psychoanalysis changed, how feminism changed.
The Theban Mysteries (1979), for instance, takes Kate back to her posh private girls' school, and there Cross gives us a snapshot of changing mores. Some of the characters still habitually use honorifics and surnames to address people they don't know very well, but that formality is eroding: "My name's Anne," says a new acquaintance of Kate Fansler's. "I don't leap to the use of first names immediately as a rule, but I discovered that if one is going to discuss senior seminars and disaffected youth, one had better skip the usual steps to familiarity." Heilbrun may not have given us mysteries that, qua mysteries, will stand the test of time. What she did give us is an intimate social history of the late 20th century as seen from the vantage point of certain privileged circles.
Lauren Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School.
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