Amanda Cross •
The Theban Mysteries •
Carolyn Heilbrun, writing under the pen name Amanda Cross, has given us an English professor turned detective in the impeccably groomed, whip-smart person of Kate Fansler. Kate, an indefatigable walker and a die-hard feminist, drinks Laphroaig single malt in airports and quotes W.H. Auden at the drop of a hat. By the time we reach The Theban Mysteries, the fourth book featuring her, she has married the collegiate-sounding Reed Amhearst, an assistant DA who’s sufficiently well-read to know when she starts “talking like a bad imitation of Nancy Mitford” (Poetic Justice).
Kate’s turf is the campuses of New York and New England, with occasional side trips further afield. Murders are committed in academia for all the standard reasons (greed, jealousy, revenge) as well as a few industry-specific ones—plagiarism, university politics, and institutionalized misogyny and racism. The Theban Mysteries finds Kate returning to her alma mater, an exclusive girls’ school on the Upper East Side, to give a seminar on Antigone. A sudden, bizarre death there mirrors the play’s themes—and brings Kate face to face with snarling Dobermans.
But Kate—possessed of brains, breeding, and great good sense—can hold her own in any confrontation. When a young man sniffs, “All your generation drink,” she counters, “And all yours smell.”
Heilbrun, the first woman granted tenure in the English department at Columbia, chose to use an alias to avoid repercussions in her Ivy League career. Her mysteries are strewn with epigraphs, scholarly allusions, and literary commentary (“Ogden Nash had a lot to answer for”) amid the obligatory corpses and suspects. And throughout the 14-book series, Kate’s observations echo Heilbrun’s experience: “She had lived long enough to know that when you find intelligence and integrity in the same individual, you have found a prize” (In the Last Analysis).