Fiction Review

“In the Last Analysis” by Amanda Cross

Cross, Amanda. In the Last Analysis (1964) 
rpt. Avon Books, 176 pages, $5.50 paperback  
ISBN 0-380-54510-1

Carolyn G. Heilbrun, the reality behind the pseudonym Amanda Cross, was a professor at Columbia University in New York City. In Cross’s Kate Fansler mysteries I hoped to find books with a bit more substance than many current mysteries present. I figured the best place to start the series was at the beginning.

In the Last Analysis introduces Kate Fansler, an English professor an at unnamed university in New York City. One of Kate’s former students asks for a referral to a good psychiatrist. When the student is found murdered on the couch of the psychiatrist, Kate’s close friend Emanuel Bauer, suspicion falls on Emanuel, on his wife, and even on Kate herself.

As might be expected from an academic writer, there are numerous literary references in the book, such as Kate’s remark about Emanuel: “There are many things I don’t admire about Emanuel, but I feel about him as Emerson felt about Carlyle: ‘If genius were cheap,’ Emerson said, ‘we might do without Carlyle, but in the existing population he cannot be spared'” (p. 65). And again: “‘After all, life is full of coincidence, as Hardy knew, though none of us like to admit it'” (p. 115).

What I did not expect to find, though, is snobbish, class-conscious stereotyping: “the facts, if they were facts, on Emanuel’s side were not the sort the police, who must all have stanch lower-middle-class backgrounds, could understand” (p. 35).

An additional problem I had with this novel is understanding Kate Fansler’s age. From the facts given in the book about her life, it’s possible to estimate her age as somewhere between 30 and 35. Yet she SEEMS so much older than that; she thinks, talks, and acts like someone on the back side of middle age, even referring to current college students as “the younger generation.”

I was slightly disappointed with this book, but even more bewildered. I expected more consistent characterization, more substantive literary allusions, and a better mystery. 

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Dirt” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Dirt (1996)  
HarperCollins, 272 pages, $24.00 hardcover 
ISBN 0 06 017666 0

When fax machines all over the country begin receiving exposés about ruthless New York gossip columnist Amanda Dart, she hires Stone Barrington to find out who’s giving her a dose of her own medicine. Barrington is a former policeman, now an attorney and sometimes private investigator, who first appeared in Stuart Woods’s novel New York Dead.

I went back and read this earlier novel after reading Dead in the Water, in which Barrington also appears, and was greatly disappointed. Dirt falls well below the level of all of Woods’s novels that I’ve read so far. I’ve come to expect intriguing plots and, usually, at least interesting characters from Stuart Woods. But Dirt has the thinnest plot I’ve seen in a long time, just the bare minimum of a story line necessary to hang his characters on.

And what disappointing characters they are, all of them. No one in this book, not even our hero Stone Barrington, rises above the level of stereotype. In reading this book it’s easy to imagine an author  enjoying immensely the portrayal of someone like Amanda Dart. And the resolution of all of Amanda’s problems comes in a way that’s particularly fitting, if somewhat melodramatic. But I expect more than stereotypes, even humorous ones, and melodrama from Stuart Woods. I would have stopped reading his books long ago if he weren’t capable of producing work much better than Dirt.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Author News Fiction

Amanda Cross: Introductory Notes

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)
Fiction Review

“Santa Fe Rules” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Santa Fe Rules (1992)  
Harper Paperbacks, 332 pages, $5.99 paperback  
ISBN 0 06 109089 1

After leaving his Santa Fe home one morning to travel to his Hollywood home and workplace, film producer Wolf Willett is stunned to read his own obituary in The New York Times. He, his wife, and his best friend and business partner are listed as the victims in a triple homicide committed the previous night at his Santa Fe home. Wolf has no memory of the night of the killings, and the Santa Fe district attorney has him pegged for the murders. With help from big time criminal attorney Ed Eagle, Wolf searches for anything that will clear his name and reveal the real killer.

This is a fast-paced, plot-driven thriller with a credible denouement. Even when plot is primary, however, Stuart Woods usually does not come up short in the character department. In this book he includes one of his interesting minor characters in the person of attorney Ed Eagle.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“The Ax” by Donald E. Westlake

Westlake, Donald E. The Ax (1997)  
Mysterious Press, 273 pages, $23.00 hardcover  
ISBN 0 89296 587 8

Most of the serial killers we meet in modern fiction are tortured souls, abused as children or tormented by multiple personalities. But what if an otherwise ordinary man made a perfectly logical decision to become a mass murderer? 

Burke Devore, the protagonist of Donald E. Westlake’s darkly comic novel The Ax, is that man. Middle-aged, with a daughter in college and a son in high school, Devore has devoted most of his life to working his way up within the specialty paper industry. When his company merged with another and downsized, Devore and his colleagues became expendable. He’s now been out of work for two years, and he’s getting desperate. Faced with the realization that he’s not anybody’s top choice to fill a job vacancy, he develops a plan to kill off the competition:

I can’t change the circumstances of the world I live in. This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and there’s nothing I can do about it. All I can hope to do is play that hand better than anybody else. Whatever it takes. (p. 71)

. . .

I’m not a killer. I’m not a murderer, I never was, I don’t want to be such a thing, soulless and ruthless and empty. That’s not me. What I’m doing now I was forced into, by the logic of events; the shareholders’ logic, and the executives’ logic, and the logic of the marketplace, and the logic of the workforce, and the logic of the millennium, and finally by my own logic.

Show me an alternative, and I’ll take it. What I’m doing now is horrible, difficult, frightening, but I have to do it to save my own life. (p. 129)

Inexperienced at murder, Devore bungles his way through shooting the first two competitors (and one man’s wife as well who, unfortunately, gets in the way). He gets better at murder as he progresses, though, taking pride in his ability to devise clever and effective ways to eliminate the other job seekers without bringing suspicion upon himself.

The novel ends with Devore getting ready to go interview for the job he’s been shooting for all along. Let’s hope he gets it.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“New York Dead” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. New York Dead (1991)  
HarperPaperbacks, 325 pages, $5.99 paperback  
ISBN 0-06-109080-8

Having read two other Stone Barrington novels (Dirt and Dead in the Water) previously, I decided to go back and be properly introduced to this character whom Stuart Woods can’t seem to let go.

In New York Dead Stone Barrington is a New York City police officer nearly ready to return to active duty after being shot in the knee 11 weeks earlier. While walking home (to rehab the knee) after a nightcap at Elaine’s, he happens to look up just in time to see a woman plummeting, spread-eagled, to earth. After calling for help, Barrington races up to the adjacent building’s penthouse just in time to hear someone running down the stairs. He takes off in pursuit but cannot catch the fleeing suspect.

The fallen woman is Sasha Nijinsky, a big-time New York news broadcaster. The case takes a bizarre twist when the ambulance taking Nijinsky, who apparently survived the fall, to a hospital is broadsided by a fire truck. In the ensuing chaos, Nijinsky seems to have disappeared.

Because this is a high-profile case, the police are under pressure to bring in a suspect, no matter how flimsy the evidence might be. During the investigation Barrington learns a lot both about himself and about the politics of police work.

The reader also learns a lot about Stone Barrington: about his parents, his upbringing, his education (he completed law school but never took the bar exam because he’d become fascinated by police work), and how he came to own a valuable house in an exclusive New York City neighborhood. The reader also learns about Barrington’s susceptibility to beautiful, sexy women as he becomes obsessed with Cary Hilliard during the investigation.

At the beginning of New York Dead Elaine tells Stone he’s “too good looking to be a cop. Too smart, too.” By the end of the novel Barrington has done a lot of soul-searching, passed the bar exam, changed careers, and become the suave, debonair ladies’ man we meet in the subsequent novels. I think that if I had read New York Dead before the other books, I would have been disappointed in how Barrington later turns out. 

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Smoke” by Donald E. Westlake

Westlake, Donald E. Smoke (1995)  
Mysterious Press, 454 pages, $21.95  hardcover  
ISBN 0-89296-543-7

Freddie Noon is a twice-convicted thief in New York City.  So when he’s caught by Dr. David Loomis and Dr. Peter Heimhocker stealing electronic equipment from their research facility, he decides that becoming their experimental subject is better than the alternative:  a third, and very long, stay in the slammer.  Freddie takes both of the doctors’ experimental formulas instead of just one and promptly becomes invisible—which, of course, makes it easy for him to escape.  

This send-up of the tobacco industry is high comedy.  The research that renders Freddie invisible is funded by the American Tobacco Research Institute in its continuing efforts “to come up with anything and everything that might help in the human race’s battle against the scourge of cancer, except, of course, further evidence that might recommend the giving up of the smoking of cigarettes.”  And since an invisible man would make a wonderful spy, the race is soon underway by tobacco-company flunkies to find Freddie Noon.

As in most satire, a lot of the humor here derives from caricature. There’s Mordon Leethe, the aging tobacco-company lawyer who’s spent most of his life trying not to think about the implications of his work; Loomis and Heimhocker, who avoid thinking about the ethical implications of their research as long as the funding keeps rolling in;  Barney Beuler, the crooked NYPD cop who manages to stay a step or two ahead of Internal Affairs while looking after his own interests;  Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the lecherous and double-crossing fence who gets his comeuppance, several times, from an invisible Freddie; and Jack Fullerton the Fourth, the tobacco empire CEO who’s dying of emphysema but manages to light up a cigarette despite the oxygen tube in his nose.   Finally, there’s Jack Fullerton’s successor, Merrill Fullerton, who has a brilliant plan to keep himself in business:  “‘We’ve spent the last forty years,’ he said, ‘trying to make cigarettes safe for the human race, and we’ve failed.  We can spend the next forty years making the human race safe for cigarettes!’”

Once the reader grants the impossible premise—that a person could be made invisible—everything else follows logically and humorously.  Loomis and Heimhocker, in their research involving skin pigmentation, have developed two separate formulas.  They’ve experimented by giving each formula to one of their cats, and two translucent cats now wander around their building.   The researchers know they need to do human testing, but they balk at using the formulas on themselves;  after all, “how could a translucent scientist hope to be taken seriously in the medical journals?”

But what raises Smoke above the level of a mere comic romp is the developing relationship between the two main characters, Freddie and his girlfriend, Peg Briscoe.   Peg freaks out—understandably—the first night that the invisible Freddie crawls into bed next to her.  And it’s not easy living with an invisible man—just think about it.  You can never be sure where he is and whether he’s watching  you.  (Peg can see Freddie only when he’s fully clothed and wearing pink Playtex gloves and one of the masks—Freddie prefers Bart Simpson—Peg gets for him at a costume supplier.)  And you can’t do simple things that normal people do like go out to dinner together.  But when Peg is in danger, Freddie, who could easily just disappear, puts himself at risk to rescue her.  As Peg explains to Freddie’s mother (and to the lurking Freddie) at book’s end,  “‘It took me a while to adjust, but it’s gonna be okay now.  He came and helped me when I was in trouble, and he didn’t have to, and I realize we need each other, we’ve got to be together.’”

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Run Before the Wind” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Run Before the Wind (1983)  
rpt. 1988; Avon, 310 pages, $6.50 paperback  
ISBN 0 380 70507 9

In Run Before the Wind Stuart Woods picks up the Lee family from his first novel, Chiefs. Will Lee, the spoiled, restless son of politician Billy Lee and his wife Patricia, is finishing his second year at the University of Georgia Law School when he lands in a spot of trouble. The dean of the law school thinks that Will is not truly committed to school or the legal profession and sends him off on a year’s leave of absence to discover what he wants to do with his life.

Will heads off to Ireland to visit his grandfather, intending to go on from there to a year of traveling around Europe. But his plans change when he meets Mark and Annie Pemberton-Robinson. Mark, a former officer in the Royal Marines who was severely wounded in Belfast, is now obsessed with building a state-of-the-art yacht. When the reclusive international entrepreneur Derek Thrasher mysteriously appears on the scene and agrees to finance the project, Mark and Annie convince Will to sign on.

Will Lee spends the next year and a half on a voyage of self-discovery that involves financial intrigue, international terrorism, personal loyalty and commitment, love, lust, betrayal, and courage. Run Before the Wind is another page-turner from a master storyteller.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Baby, Would I Lie?” by Donald E. Westlake

Westlake, Donald E. Baby, Would I Lie? (1994)  
Mysterious Press 291 pages $19.95  hardcover  
ISBN  0-89296-532-0

Singer Ray Jones has his own theater on traffic-jam strip in Branson, Missouri, new center of country-and-western music.  And Branson traffic is about to become even more congested than usual as reporters from everywhere pour in to cover Ray Jones’s trial for the murder of a former employee.  Among them are Sara Joslyn, girl reporter for New York City’s Trend: The Magazine for the Way We Live This Instant, and her editor, Jack Ingersoll.

Sara is tickled pink to be the only reporter invited to join Ray Jones’s entourage.  While she covers the trial, Jack works on a parallel story about the unethical—not to mention illegal—methods used by the tabloid Weekly Galaxy to get the scoop on the trial. In the end Sara gets even more of a story than she bargained for when she discovers why good ol’ boy Ray singled her out to be a member of his group.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Point of Origin” by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell, Patricia. Point of Origin (1998)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 356 pages, $25.95 hardcover   
ISBN 0 399 14394 7

I’m getting really sick of Kay Scarpetta. At least in Patricia Cornwell’s earlier novels Scarpetta waited until the plot began to develop before beginning her self-centered, self-righteous lamentations. But in Point of Origin Scarpetta starts whining at the beginning of the book and continues until the end; in the interim, not much else happens.

Scarpetta’s latest misadventure finds her involved in a series of arson fires apparently set to conceal homicides. Meanwhile, psychopath Carrie Grethen, nemesis of both Kay Scarpetta and her niece Lucy, escapes from a prison for the insane; both Kay and Lucy know that Carrie will come after them seeking revenge.

Oh, did I mention that Lucy, having left the FBI, is now a crack helicopter pilot for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms? Lucy’s new talent recalls the beginning of Cause of Death, in which we learn that Kay Scarpetta, in addition to being a lawyer and a physician, is also a certified SCUBA diver. Patricia Cornwell must think that stunning revelations such as these constitute character development.

Point of Origin does contain one shocking development in Kay Scarpetta’s life, but other than that there isn’t much story line at all. Apparently Patricia Cornwell and Dr. Kay Scarpetta both need a break from each other.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown