[(essay date 1996) In the following essay, Boken presents extended analysis of the sixth through eleventh Amanda Cross mysteries.]
"Dabbling in revolutionary thought"
Overview of the Novels
Of all the Amanda Cross novels, the sixth, Death in a Tenured Position, is perhaps the best known and is for some fans the absolute best. Set at Harvard University, the action covers the apparent murder of Janet Mandelbaum, the first woman tenured by the all-male Department of English, which is depicted as rabidly anti-feminist. Heilbrun pummels the condescending elitism and bias against women observed at this prestigious university. Sweet Death, Kind Death, the seventh Cross novel, is pervaded by references to suicides of several famous women, including Virginia Woolf. The character Patrice Umphelby, another lone female tenured professor, in this case in the history department of a small New England college, is an apparent suicide, since she had spoken of not wanting to be invaded by old age. Kate unravels the mystery, which turns out to be a murder. An unusual angle in this book is its look at the unlimited possibilities of middle and old age.
No Word from Winifred, the eighth novel, is a mystery sans murder. Winifred Ashby disappears, and though Kate Fansler never meets her, she discovers in Winifred's journals a warm-spirited, independent woman who enjoys solitude and who meets the world, especially men, on her own terms. Descriptions of Oxford, England, portray the university town as a virtual Arcadia. Kate unravels the puzzle of the absent Winifred, who is sketched as one model of feminism.
The ninth Amanda Cross novel, A Trap for Fools, takes as its title a line from the famous Rudyard Kipling poem "If." A professor on Fansler's campus, an intensely disliked man, is murdered, and a black female student is murdered shortly thereafter. In uncovering the murderer, Kate herself is threatened and betrayed by a female friend. She also encounters problems on the campus--from corruption and racism to police bias and blackmail.
The tenth detective novel, The Players Come Again, takes its title from a line in Virginia Woolf's The Waves. It portrays a number of engaging women who had been close friends in their youth, pursued separate paths, and then resumed their close ties. Marriage, friendship, and feminism are important themes.
The eleventh novel, An Imperfect Spy, reverberates with quotes from English spy novelist John le Carré. The venue is Schuyler Law School in New York City. Kate and her husband, Reed, a lawyer, are hired for a semester, she to team-teach a course in literature and law. Before their arrival, a professor dies, and some believe she was murdered. Student unrest, resentments against women by male faculty (most of whom are mediocre), generational misunderstandings, wife battering, and the law's inequity toward women challenge Fansler and her husband, both of whom stir not only the interest but the anger of students. Once the two finish the semester, Schuyler Law School is never quite the same.