In 2013 I found myself moving from a house in the Wissahickon neighborhood back into an apartment in Center City Philadelphia, and sadly one of the casualties of that move was the need to rid myself of most of the 2,000 plus books that I had acquired.
Included in that hoard were the almost complete collection of Kate Fansler mysteries by Amanda Cross.
Now that I’m in a house again, I’ve found myself occasionally re-purchasing some of those sadly departed books, although more often than not in ebook editions.
Including, I’m happy to say, the Kate Fansler mysteries.
As best as I can recall, the first Kate Fansler book that I read was the second one to be published, The James Joyce Murder in 1967; more likely than not, I came across it in the Lebanon Library. After that I kept an eye out for all Amanda Cross books, which came out roughly every two or three years, and I went back and found the first novel, In the Last Analysis, in the series.
“Amanda Cross” was actually the pen name of Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, an English professor who wanted to keep her mystery fiction a secret from her academic colleagues. The Book Series in Order website describes her heroine Kate Fansler as
a mirror image of Cross as she is a feminist and a professor of literature. The novels are detective mysteries featuring an amateur sleuth who digs through clues, some of which are found in literary texts to find the motivation of a killer. The novels were well-received with their intricate plots and social commentaries receiving much critical acclaim. Some themes that resonated with readers include the struggle for independence, interpersonal relationships, and changing social positions. The novels are a scathing indictment of unnecessary politics in academia, unflattering portraits of professors, and the pretensions of Ivy League schools. The novels have been compared to the works of George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde, particularly with regard to the intellectual talk and satiric wit.
I’ve just re-read The James Joyce Murder, probably for the first time since I found it in 1967, and I was delighted to find that it holds up as well as any of the best whodunits from that era. It makes a good introduction to the series; the first novel was good, but this second one is even better.
There are references aplenty to James Joyce and his works strewn throughout the novel, but there’s no need to know anything about him, as the author fills in any details that are needed, with one or two exceptions, and you can find out who M’Intosh was by doing a web search. Each of the fifteen chapters bears the title of a Joyce short story, and the mystery is propelled by Kate Fansler finding herself in a country house in order to sort through a trove of Joycean letters. Joining her in the country house are her ten year old nephew, some graduate students, her sometime paramour Reed Amhearst, and an illustrious retired professor; an assortment of cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, and other full time inhabitants of the rural area fill out the character list.
James Joyce isn’t the only literary reference. Before I got tired of jotting them down I noted references to Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare, Milton, Virginia Woolf, Beatrix Potter, Ibsen, Joseph Conrad, A.A. Milne, as well as mystery authors Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Rex Stout. And there are non-literary references to people as diverse as Trevor Howard, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles.
But lest I give the impression that the book is naught but a collection of dry references, here’s a quote where Kate is describing a fellow academic’s book:
“Very well. Let me tell you then that [he] has contented himself with collecting a lot of tired clichés, if a cliché may ever be said to be without fatigue, and has simply written them all down in a most inept manner.”
“You mean he can’t write?”
“On the contrary, he writes with a certain felicity. He can’t think.”
Or when she’s trying to describe Joyce’s classic novel:
“Ulysses is more cheerful,” Kate said.
“Isn’t that supposed to be an immoral book?” Mr. Stratton asked.
“Neither legally nor actually,” Kate said. “In point of fact, it’s one of the most moral books in the language. Bloom is bringer of love to a dead city, and to a not-yet-artist who has not yet learned to love. Light to the gentiles.”
“I thought there was a lot of sex in it,” Mr. Stratton bravely said.
“There’s a lot of sex in life,” Kate answered.
“In some lives,” Grace Knole said.
At one point Kate describes her own manner of speaking as “full of subordinate clauses, and penultimate climaxes, interspersed with periodic sentences.”
I should note that although many of Amanda Cross’s books are currently available in ebook editions, The James Joyce Murder is not one of them; presumably the ebook has been withdrawn, although a paperback is still in print. I can only hope that the ebook will find its way back to the virtual shelves shortly.
This is probably as good a time as any to admit that I’ve never been able to wade through Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, though I’ve started it any number of times. However, I did read most of his short stories. I even wrote a paper for an English class on the story “Counterparts”, and I was feeling pretty foxy because I had spotted the counterparts that Joyce had built into that story, or so I thought. As I recall, I did get an A on that paper, but another student in the same class had spotted even more counterparts than I had, and I’ve been kicking myself ever since because I should have noticed them myself. As I said, I schussle.