The Theban Mysteries (1972) – Amanda Cross

“People don’t speak in semi-colons.” I remember saying that to my husband many years ago, referring to one of Amanda Cross’s books. I was reminded of that again when I recently reread The Theban Mysteries. Actually, in this book, I didn’t notice the semi-colons till about page 120 or so, but I did notice the long, didactic speeches made by several of the characters early on. And worst of all was the stilted, overblown speech patterns of the supposedly adolescent students at the Theban School. I taught at an elite NYC private school in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and none of my students ever talked like that!

I think Carolyn Heilbrun, writing as Amanda Cross, was simply trying too hard in this book. Her detective, English professor Kate Fansler, and her husband, Reed Amhearst, seem to be attempting sparkling conversation in the style of Harriet Vane and Lord Peter. Reed is constantly quoting from playwrights known for their witty comedies – Noel Coward, Kaufman & Hart, Philip Barry (The Philadelphia Story) – while Kate quotes ‘great literature.’  The plot involves a sort of impossible crime/locked room mystery, the solution to which is a great letdown. None of it quite works.

Many of the members of my book group remember, as I do, the excitement when a new Amanda Cross mystery was released. We loved the fact that Kate was a strong woman protagonist, and we enjoyed the satirical look at the pompous academics who peopled her books. Heilbrun/Cross was a pioneer in her creation of a woman detective. But significantly, not one of us remembered reading any of her books after about 1984, though she kept on writing the Kate Fansler books up to 2002. What happened? In 1982, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone appeared, as did Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. By 1987, we also had Linda Barnes’s Carlotta Carlisle and Gillian Roberts’s Amanda Pepper and many other smart, feisty women sleuths to choose from. Kate Fansler wasn’t a novelty anymore, and she seemed so preachy and long-winded compared to her younger contemporaries.

I admire Carolyn Heilbrun for her contributions to feminist scholarship and for the way she chose to live her life and to end it. But I don’t think I’ll be rereading Amanda Cross again.

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6 Responses to “The Theban Mysteries (1972) – Amanda Cross”

  1. I read one of the Kate Fansler novels years ago–I can’t recall which or anything about it except that, like you, I found the dialogue stilted and completely unrealistic. Students don’t talk the way she portrayed them, and neither do any of the professors I’ve ever known. As a result, I never had any desire to read any other titles in the series.

    • Yes, I’ve taught at a university for 20 years and even the most pompous of my colleagues didn’t talk like that! Of course, it wasn’t Columbia…

  2. I was curious if you ever thought of changing the structure
    of your blog? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or two pictures.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

    • Not sure what you mean about people connecting with it better. What could I do a little more of? I think you left out a word or two.

      I certainly could space it out more, I guess. But not by adding more pictures.

  3. I read Amanda Cross’s ‘Death in a Tenured Position’ last year; it seemed one of my most enjoyable American mystery reads for decades. I can’t recall thinking the dialogue was stilted; however, some of the characters were, which was part of the point. People don’t speak in colons either; why is this a reason for getting rid of semi-colons? Most readers shun novels written in markedly naturalistic dialogue; it’s so ruddy stuffed wi’ aggro innit. Thanks for all your recommendations and write-ups though!

    • cshmurak Says:

      Thanks, Conor. Glad you like my write-ups. I agree that ‘Death in a Tenured Position’ was good – it’s one of her best, written before she got really preachy. But I stand by my criticism of this book. Students in NYC elite private schools never talked this way, and most of us, even Harvard-educated literature professors, speak less pompously than most of her characters.

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