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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)
Categories
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

Categories
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

Categories
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

Categories
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

Categories
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

Categories
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

Categories
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

Categories
Fiction Review

“Chiefs” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Chiefs (1981)   
Avon Books, 427 pages, $5.99 paperback  
ISBN 0 380 70347 5

Recommended

One benefit to discovering a prolific author with one of his later works is that you then have the pleasure of going back and reading all his earlier books as well.  I first discovered Stuart Woods in 1996 with Under the Lake (1987) and Choke (1995). In reading Chiefs, his first novel, I’m reminded of what makes Woods such a compelling writer: he is a consummate storyteller who combines compelling characters with interesting plots to create books that are as intriguing as they are believable.

Chiefs tells the story of three police chiefs in the rural town of Delano, Georgia. Book One presents the story of Will Henry Lee, who leaves his unprofitable farm to become Delano’s first police chief in 1919. In Book Two we meet Sonny Butts, who is hired as a Delano police officer in 1946 during the effort to provide veterans with civilian jobs. In Book Three Tucker Watts becomes the town’s first black police chief in 1962 after retiring from a military career.

Several threads unify this story, which covers more than 40 years. First, there’s the town itself, which we watch grow. Second, several characters appear throughout the book, most notably Hugh Holmes, the town banker and one of the original founders of Delano, and Billy Lee, son of Will Henry Lee. Finally, there’s a recurring mystery that occupies all three of the police chiefs in this fine first novel. 

Chiefs, Woods’ first novel, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award and established him as a novelist.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Review

“Unnatural Exposure” by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell, Patricia. Unnatural Exposure (1997)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 338 pages, $25.95 hardcover   
ISBN 0 399 14285 1

After Cornwell’s two recent disasters, Cause of Death and Hornet’s Nest, I approached Unnatural Exposure with trepidation. Dr. Kay Scarpetta returns in a novel that doesn’t exhibit Hornet’s Nest’s lack of focus but that does, like Cause of Death, suffer from plotting problems.

When a human torso is discovered in a landfill in Virginia, Dr. Scarpetta joins the search for a serial killer that had begun several years earlier in Europe. Soon Dr. Scarpetta realizes that, instead of only a serial killer, she may be hunting a psychopath planning to unleash a deadly epidemic on the population. The search becomes more personal when Kay begins receiving photos of the victims over America Online from someone using the screen name deadoc.

The plot inconsistencies arise from the way Dr. Scarpetta reacts to the epidemic threat. When a victim dies on an island off the coast of Virginia, she insists that the island be quarantined; yet she shows no overt concern for the health of the elderly local doctor who treated the patient and reported the death. Later, after Scarpetta has spent some time in a government maximum-quarantine facility and been released, she develops flu-like symptoms. She insists that she’s just coming down with the flu and goes about her business when, in fact, she of all people should be back knocking on the hospital door insisting to be let back in.

The final plot weakness of this novel is the denouement. Don’t even try to figure out ahead of time who the villain is. The ending comes out of nowhere, with no preparation.

And I keep hoping that Scarpetta will change at least a little, that she’ll mellow a bit and become a better human being. But in Unnatural Exposure she’s back at her characteristic rotten treatment of Pete Marino. 

When Kay finds the first photo from deadoc on AOL, she’s terrified. She immediately calls Marino, and he comes right over, arriving at “almost midnight.” He goes into her home office to look at her computer screen:

His eyes were fastened to the screen, and he adjusted my chair. Then his big feet shoved books on the floor as he made himself comfortable. When he picked up files and moved them to another corner of my desk, I couldn’t stand it any longer.

“I have things where I want them,” I pointedly said as I returned the files to their original messy space.

“Hey, chill out, Doc,” he said as if it didn’t matter. “How do we know that this thing ain’t a hoax?”

Again, he moved the files out of his way, and now I was really irritated.

“Marino, you’re going to have to get up,” I said. “I don’t let anybody sit at my desk. You’re making me crazy.”

He shot me an angry look and got up out of my chair. “Hey, do me a favor. Next time call somebody else when you got a problem.”

“Try to be sensitive . . .”

He cut me off, losing his temper. “No. You be sensitive and quit being such a friggin’ fussbudget.” (p. 38)

While Unnatural Exposure isn’t as good as Cornwell’s earliest novels, it’s definitely not as bad as the previous two. Let’s hope this trend continues.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown