Reviewing Amanda Cross, A Feminist Mystery Writer

January 14, 2024 By Isabelle Sophie Martinet

I just read Death in a Tenured Position by Amanda Cross. Her real name was Carolyn Heilbrun, and it seems she was born a feminist. She taught English at Columbia University between 1960 and 1993. She was the first tenured female in that institution’s English department. The book is about the demise of a fictional woman, Janet Mandelbaum, the first tenured female at Harvard’s English Literature Department, and how her peers and students of both genders react to that appointment. It gives us a wonderful insight into that period and the confusion surrounding the expectations of women in their new roles outside the home.

There are fourteen books in the Professor Kate Fansler mystery series. In this one Kate is asked to help Janet out of an embarrassing situation. The books are small, but they are packed with literature, not only in their academic style, but in their literary references. It is a bit of a challenge to catch the meanings at times, but it is not difficult to appreciate the English language presented in such a scholarly manner.

Kate’s character seems snobby and stuffy at first, but I couldn’t help but identify with her ideals. I rather enjoyed the differing viewpoints of the men and women involved in the story. It reminded me that there actually was a woman’s movement back then, and I appreciate Ms. Heilbrun’s outlook during that most important time. For those who think the peace symbol summarizes the “Age of Aquarius,” it might behoove you to dig a little deeper. And what better way to do it than through a scholarly mystery series.

The author committed suicide in 2003 at the age of seventy-seven, thus ending the series. It was a conscious and deliberate choice. Reading about it reminded me of an independent movie called Taking Your Life. In it Kathryn Joosten, who is best known as the President’s secretary in television’s West Wing series (now as Karen in Desperate Housewives), is filmed over the last week of her life, before she ends it. The two interviewers try to persuade her to reconsider as the filming progresses, citing things she may not have done yet. But Joosten’s character had done all that she wanted to in this life, had outlived her family and wanted to go while her mind and body were still functioning. The movie presents a better understanding of Ms. Heilbrun’s choice.

I recommend the movie to help visualize the independent spirit of Amanda Cross. I recommend the Kate Fansler series to aid in understanding what many women have forgotten or now take for granted.