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.