Feminist critic and scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun was a tenured professor of literature at Columbia University in New York City. She published mystery novels featuring heroine Kate Fansler under the pseudonym Amanda Cross.
I originally read In the Last Analysis, the first Kate Fansler novel, because I had frequently heard this series described as “literate mysteries.” That novel left me perplexed. Because knowledgeable mystery readers often say that the first Kate Fansler novel is not the best, I decided to try a couple of others, another early novel and a more recent one. But the other early novel, The James Joyce Murder, left me just as perplexed. The mystery in both of these books is minimal; the most important aspect of the novels seems to be the gatherings and discussions of Kate and her friends and colleagues.
At the same time that I was reading The James Joyce Murder, I also read Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s book Writing a Woman’s Life. In chapter six of this book Heilbrun explains why, when she started writing mysteries, she chose to publish them under a pseudonym. At that time she was a university professor, and she feared that having written “popular” novels would count against her when she came up for tenure. But over the years she’s come to realize that there’s more to her decision to use a pseudonym than just fear about tenure: “I think now that there are layers within layers of significance to a woman’s decision to write under a pseudonym, but the most important reason for her doing so is that the woman author is, consciously or not, creating an alter ego as she writes, another possibility of female destiny” (p. 110). “I believe now that I must have wanted, with extraordinary fervor, to create a space for myself” (p. 113).
“But I also sought another identity, another role. I sought to create an individual whose destiny offered more possibility than I could comfortably imagine for myself” (p. 114). “I created a fantasy. Without children, unmarried, unconstrained by the opinions of others, rich and beautiful, the newly created Kate Fansler now appears to me a figure out of never-never land . . . I wanted to give her everything and see what she could do with it” (p. 115). Heilbrun says she has been criticized for having Kate smoke and drink so much, “but Kate Fansler has stuck to her martinis and cigarettes as a sort of camouflage for her more revolutionary opinions and actions” (p. 122). Heilbrun hoped that younger women would imitate Kate “in daring to use her security in order to be brave on behalf of other women, and to discover new stories for women” (p. 122).
So I’ve been approaching the Kate Fansler stories the wrong way: they’re not really mysteries at all; the most important aspect of the novels IS the gatherings and discussions of Kate and her friends and colleagues. New York Times reviewer Marilyn Stasio apparently agrees; discussing Amanda Cross’s novel The Puzzled Heart (1998), Stasio says:
Even in crisis, Kate is quotable. (Attempts to calm her down remind her that ”E. M. Forster noticed that everyone in America is always telling everyone else to relax.’’. . . Having dispensed with what serves as the action sequences, Cross (the pseudonym of the feminist scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun) frees up her characters for the intelligent chitchat that has sustained this literate series since 1964.(New York Times, January 25, 1998)