A Political Mystery: Amanda Cross’s The Puzzled Heart

It rained over the weekend.   It was a good time to read a stormy classic, but I chose not to roam the rainy heath with Thomasin Yeobright and the reddleman (The Return of the Native). Though usually fascinated by Heathcliff’s romps on the rainy moors and digging up of Catherine’s grave  (Wuthering Heights), I am less so when it actually rains here.  And Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is too grotesque:   Cash Bundren, do not ride your mother Addie’s coffin in a flooded river!

No, the classics are too life-like.  And so I picked up a light mystery, Amanda Cross’s The Puzzled Heart.

Cross’s 14-book mystery series is set in academia.  Her amateur sleuth, Kate Fansler, is a brilliant English professor, and her assistant D.A. boyfriend, Reed, helps her with cases.  In later books, she and Reed are married, and he is a law professor.  The witty dialogue between Kate and Reed puts me in mind of the repartee between Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey in Dorothy  Sayers’s books.

The Puzzled Heart, published in 1998, is surprisingly political. It is in part about the necessity for free speech at universities, and in part about the conflicts between the far right and the rest of us (liberals, moderates, etc).

At the beginning of the novel, Kate is deeply terrified and upset. Her husband Reed has been kidnapped by a far right-wing group, and they threaten to kill him if she tells the police. She is the real target:  the ransom is to be her recantation of her feminist beliefs in an article to be published in a right-wing publication.  Naturally, she will write the article–she will do anything–but she is terrified that they’ll kill him anyway.   She confides in her best friend Leslie.

This is not the first threat she’s had, but she never thought it would affect Reed.  Leslie wants to know, How many threats, and from whom?

“Several.  I didn’t pay that much attention.  Something called the League of Right-Wing Women wrote diatribes against everything I’ve worked for.  They seemed to be in favor of sexual harassment, battering women, date rape, and child abuse.  Perhaps that’s a bit strong.  But they certainly don’t believe any of these things happen on a large scale, and saying they do is all a plot to harry men.  Leslie, I just thought they were crackers.   In addition, I thought they were probably sending these warnings to many women.  I didn’t take it all that personally. The letter last night made it very personal.”

Carolyn G. Heilbrun, aka Amanda Cross

Kate hires another friend, Harriet, a private detective, to search for Reed. The investigation involves adopting a St. Bernard puppy, crashing a fraternity, dog-breeders, and a long look at the people in Kate’s life to identify any enemies.  She does not think she has any enemies.

Yes, the far right is involved, but it is also personal.  Who hates Kate?  Is it someone in the department?  Is it someone from her past?

Another stunning academic mystery!  Very fast-paced, very well-written.

Amanda Cross is the pseudonym of Carolyn G. Heilbrun (1926-2003) , the feminist critic best known for Writing a Woman’s Life and The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty.  She was the first tenured woman in the English department at Columbia University, and a pioneering scholar of Virginia Woolf.   She wrote mysteries under a pseudonym to protect her academic career.

A Mystery Binge: Amanda Cross’s The James Joyce Murder & Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly

Case of the Gilded Fly edmund crispin 41MKNKVM8PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Occasionally we put on our thickest glasses to read Cicero’s De Senectute or peruse an article in Classical World, “Prostitutes, Plonk, and Play: Female Banqueters on a Red-figure Psykter from the Hermitage.”

Sometimes it is amusing, sometimes it is not.

And so we balance it with a genre book binge weekend.

This weekend I lolled on the couch and read mysteries by Edmund Crispin and Amanda Cross.

The case of the gilded fly crispin penguin 2692951If you like Golden Age Detective fiction of the ilk of Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, I recommend Edmund Crispin.   Although I am not a huge fan of his most famous book, The Moving Toyshop, I  immensely enjoyed The Case of the Gilded Fly, the first of his Gervase Fen mysteries, published in 1945.  Fen, an amateur sleuth, is an eccentric English professor at Oxford whose wit and brilliance are slightly  reminiscent of Albert Campion or Peter Wimsey.

Every Golden Age mystery writer writes a novel set in the theater.  In The Case of the Gilded Fly, the premise is that a successful playwright, Robert Warner, has come to Oxford to try out his new play in a repertory theater. The actors, musicians, journalists, stage manager, and hangers-on are a congenial lot, with one exception. Everyone hates Yseut Haskell,  a  manipulative, promiscuous actress who was Robert’s mistress years ago.

So when she is found murdered in the rooms of an infatuated musician,  there are so many suspects that it is hard to keep them straight. Fortunately we have Fen to sense of everything.   This is a very entertaining mystery, and if the writing is a bit  uneven, it is, after all, Crispin’s first book.

amanda cross james joyce 51hqUh4nIXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Amanda Cross’s Kate Fansler mysteries are, in my opinion, American classics.  Yes, put her in the Library of America!  I’m in favor.  Cross is the pseudonym of Carolyn G. Heilbrun, the feminist critic known for Writing a Woman’s Life and The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty.  She was the first tenured woman in the English department at Columbia University.  She wrote mysteries under a pen name to protect her academic career. Her sleuth, Kate Fansler, is a brilliant, witty English professor, often assisted by her assistant D.A. boyfriend, Reed Amhearst.

In The James Joyce Murder, published in 1967, Kate has become  the temporary custodian of the literary correspondence between James Joyce and Samuel Lingerwell, an American publisher.  She is not a Joycean, but is a friend of Lingerwell’s daughter.  She hires Emmett, an Austen scholar, to deal with the letters, because she knows a Joyce fanatic might attempt  to hijack bits for articles.  She has also hired William, a graduate student to tutor her nephew, Leo, and all are living in a country house..

amanda cross jamesjoycemurderThen one morning Mary Bradford, a gossipy farmer’s wife much hated by everyone in the neighborhood, is shot dead by William. All summer Leo and William have had target practice every morning with an empty gun.   Someone put a bullet in the gun, and everyone is a suspect.  Could it have something to do with James Joyce?

Fascinating, clever, and very good argument for gun control.