As you may have noticed lately, I have been reviewing, in honor of the forthcoming reissue of the mysteries of Anne Morice, who debuted as a detective novelist in 1970, certain "traditional" detective novels published that same year, fifty plus years ago. So far I have reviewed three, which I rate on the five-star scale as follows:
Patricia Moyes, Who Saw Her Die? ****
Ruth Rendell, A Guilty Thing Surprised **1/2
Catherine Aird, A Late Phoenix **
I had wanted to cross the pond back to the States and review Amanda Cross' Poetic Justice, but awkwardly I have not been able to locate my copy. However, the search started me thinking about the author Amanda Cross, aka Carolyn Gold Heilbrun (1926-2003), whose 94th birthday passed a couple of weeks ago. Heilbrun was a prominent American scholar of modern British literature and feminist studies at Columbia University, where she was the first woman to receive tenure and hold an endowed chair. (Jacques Barzun, a keen mystery fan, was a mentor and colleague.)
Like the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Heilbrun became an important pioneering figure in the United States, marrying and starting a family (she married in 1945 when she was a freshman at Wellesley College) and taking on a noted intellectual career--refusing, as it were, to settle. But it wasn't easy. When she chose to retire in 1992 she very vocally condemned ongoing discrimination against women professors at Columbia University and throughout academia.
Not surprisingly this subject served as a common theme in Heilbrun's Amanda Cross detective novels, fourteen of which were published between 1964 and 2002, in roughly three bursts: 1964-1976, 1981-1990 and 1995-2002. (There was also a short story collection.) However, in the early pair from the Sixties, the Edgar-nominated In the Last Analysis (1964) and its delightful follow-up The James Joyce Murder (1967), she he takes a lighter approach.
The latter novel is primarily a rural comedy of manners mystery, very much in the style of the author's literary idol in the field of detective fiction, Dorothy L. Sayers. Heilbrun once said that she started writing detective fiction because she didn't like the books in the field that were then being written and she later affirmed in 1990 that she still didn't like what was being written. This seems rather lazily broad sweeping--apparently she couldn't bring herself to like PD James or Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine or Sara Caudwell or Peter Lovesey, to name a few highly literate mystery writers of the Silver Age--but it does highlight her intense love of between-the-wars detective fiction, at least as composed by Sayers and a few other Crime Queens. (I don't know whether or not Heilbrun liked Michael Innes, a writer who shared, even more more than Sayers, her love of unceasingly dropping literary quotations and is justly seen as the highest exemplar, for better or worse, of the "donnish" detective novel.)
Aside from the fact that I honestly would have thought that Heilbrun would have liked James and Rendell's fiction, she shared with them, it seems, a warm regard for her father and a more ambivalent attitude toward her mother. Her father, public accountant and business consultant Archibald Gold, was a wealthy, self-made man, a Jewish immigrant originally from Vilnius, Lithuania. Her mother, Estelle Roemer, on the other hand, in Heilbrun's words "never had the courage to do anything herself in life."
What a bleak assessment! Although Gold lost his money in the Depression, he made it back again and Carolyn grew up in very comfortable surroundings, with live-in maids and the best of liberal arts educations. In 1942 the family (Carolyn was an only child) was living in an apartment at 275 West Central Park in a nineteen-story neo-renaissance building constructed in 1930 which is still around today, remaining expensive and exclusive.
|the Heilbrun apartment building overlooking Central Park|
Carolyn Gold as she then was made a wartime marriage when still a teenager to Robert Heilbrun, but she completed her education and established her own career in English lit, while he became an economist at Fordham University. The successful couple had a New York apartment and, like Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, a summer home in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, which appears to have sold a few years ago for half a million dollars. Later on in her life, Heilbrun bought another place as well, with three bedrooms and a jacuzzi, strictly for herself--Yes, Virginia Woolf, no mere "room of one's own" for her!
Yet despite the fact that she belonged not only to the intellectual but to the economic elite (more so than Sayers, in the latter regard, who as I recall was a mere vicar's daughter), Heilbrun was made to feel decidedly like an outsider in those days, both on account of her Judaism and her femininity. One might say to be a Jewish woman in an academic environment in the Fifties was inherently to be an outsider, regardless of how one was made to "feel." It simply was.
Heilbrun's politics I gather were to the Left (some of her last novels received one-star reviews on Amazon denouncing the authors left-wing political sermonizing), although in The James Joyce Murder she takes time to have her lead character condemn the taxation which local communities in the Berkshires imposed on the visiting summer people. Shirley Jackson could tell you a thing or two about local bias against visitors!
Despite Heilbrun's liberalism, however, her popular literary belle ideal, the detective fiction of the more literary Crime Queens, was decidedly conservative and has been oft-criticized for snobbery, racism and anti-Semitism. Considerable effort has been made, on the other hand, to establish the conservative Sayers as a feminist; and it must be admitted that Sayers's detective novel Gaudy Night is greatly admired by many women detective fiction readers, including feminists, academics and feminist academics, many of whom also have singled out Heilbrun's academic feminist detective novel Death in a Tenured Position (1980), as her best book. How much Heilbrun was repulsed by certain attitudes in British between-the-wars detective fiction, I don't know, but from a reading of The James Joyce Murder once would conclude very little, if at all. It's a love letter to Dorothy L.
|Alford house located on the same road where the former Heilbrun summer home |
is located--don't think this is the house however
Essentially, as mentioned above, a bucolic manners mystery, The James Joyce Murder is set in the Berkshires, drawing on the author's experience summering there in the the village of Alford, which three years ago elected its first woman to the Select Board, something of which I'm sure Heilbrun would have taken note. Heilbrun calls the town at which her series protagonist, English professor Kate Fansler, is staying "Araby," for reasons which I will explain below, but it's really Alford. Heilbrun further disguises the location by saying it's near the city of Pittsfield, but Alford is really located some twenty miles to the south, about five miles from the town of Great Barrington and a dozen miles from the village of Monterey, near where Hugh Wheeler of Patrick Quentin fame (not to mention simply Hugh Wheeler fame) still resided when this novel was published.
To give the background: Kate Fansler is staying at the Berkshires country house of the recently deceased Sam Lingerwell, long ago publisher of authors James Joyce and DH Lawrence and other controversial novelists of the 1910s and 20s, to catalogue, at the request of his daughter, an old schoolmate of Kate's, Lingerwell's long ago correspondence with James Joyce. I don't believe there actually was a Sam Lingerwell, but there was a Samuel Roth, a much more fascinating figure, who served two months in prison in 1930 for the dread crime of selling copies of Joyce's Ulysses in Philadelphia.
There's a lot crying today in the US about big tech censorship, so it's always interesting to reflect that when Ulysses was originally published, nearly a century ago in 1922, it didn't actually appear legally in the US until a dozen years later, after it was ruled not actually to be "obscene." Until then American legal authorities kept busy incinerating every copy they could get their censorious little mitts on and jailing publishers like Samuel Roth. Now, there's censorship for you, kids! It's interesting that Heilbrun changed Roth to "Lingerwell" (and cleaned up his personal history), but that's in keeping with her seeming tendency, at that point in time anyway, to put a highly WASPish gloss on her books. Just like the originals!
|British actor Trevor Howard|
whom we are told
Reed Amhearst resembles
Anyway, the plot thickens from here. Kate has brought with her a graduate student assistant ,Emmet Crawford, to help her with the cataloguing. (Actually he seems to do everything--just like real life!) Then there is her nephew Leo, a difficult boy who has been dropped on her by one of her three wealthy brothers, along with a tutor named William Lenehan, another student working on a PhD, and a great big car. (Kate herself is independently wealthy in the grand tradition, though she charmingly or irksomely, depending on your own vantage point, professes not to understand anything about how stocks and dividends and the like work.) When the novel opens Kate is explaining all this to her boyfriend Reed Amhearst (Now there's a WASP name for you!), an attorney in the New York district attorney's office who has come for a visit in his Volkswagen "Bug," having just returned from a trip to England.
Like Kate he's not actually English (though the author likens his appearance to that of "an attenuated Trevor Howard"), but like most of the postgraduate educated people in this novel talks as if he is, or rather, perhaps, like a conventional fictional conception of how certain English people talk.
Later on a couple of women English lit professors--one of them elderly, the recently retired self-described spinster Grace Knole, and the other one young, the self-described virgin Eveline "Lina" Chisana--show up. There's also another summering English professor residing nearby, an objectionable Lothario named Mr. Mulligan who publishes streams of volumes of trite literary criticism to attain a full professorship. "Who publishes your books....The University of Southern Montana Press?" So derisively asks Kate, a proponent of teaching over publishing. Poor southern Montana!
|I was nearly killed in one of these|
things nearly forty years ago!
However, it was powder blue.
You might at first think that Mr. Mulligan will be the murderee, but, no, making one brief, inglorious appearance in the book is the actual murder victim, local farmer's wife Mary Bradford, a Mayflower descendant (hence the surname I suppose) and compulsively snoopy individual with a host of unpleasant observations and opinions. Before the murder we also get briefly to see her much nicer husband. (He was originally from Scarsdale, the son of a lawyer.) It's not long though before Mary Bradford expires, ostensibly the victim of an accidental shooting.
Critics of the Amanda Cross mysteries have carped that in her later books the author didn't bother to "clue" properly, or sometimes didn't even include a murder in her story at all; but in this outing I thought the mystery problem was actually pretty good.
That point notwithstanding, likely for most people this mystery will stand or fall on its style and simply whether you go for it or nor. The cast of characters, as indicated above, is primarily composed of academics, and, goodness, do they sound like it, making literary allusions with abandon.
More problematic for some people, perhaps, they also talk like characters from certain Thirties British detective novels, something I tend to doubt a bunch of Sixties Americans would have done. Either you will accept this as an amiable pastiche of Thirties British mystery, or you won't. For my part, I got into the scheme of things and let go of any demand for naturalism in this natural setting. Once I did that, I rather enjoyed the proceedings.
|Amanda Cross was singularly |
unfortunate throughout her career
in having ugly book covers
--this is easily the best one
in my opinion
Let me quote some of the talk for you to give you a flavor of the book:
"I return from only six months in England to find you transformed, transported and transfigured." (This from Reed, who isn't even an English professor)
"I have become very disillusioned about the rural character. I suspect that Wordsworth, when he took to the country, never spoke to anyone but Dorothy and Coleridge, and perhaps an occasional leech gatherer. Tell me about England." (This from Kate; funny how Wordsworth is mentioned again, right after I read Rendell''s A Guilty Thing Surprised)
"My shoes are covered with cow dung, and my spirit is oppressed." (Reed again)
"Sit you down." (Kate--here she's more, what, Jane Austen?)
Here Kate and Reed seem clearly modeled after Sayers' Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey. They even marry over the course of several books. Although one often reads that Kate is the series amateur sleuth, however, in The James Joyce Murder it is very much Reed who solves the murder and precipitates the events which culminate in its solution, so this time at least you could say he is the Lord Peter figure and Kate Harriet, instead of the other way around; although Reed comparatively recedes in a lot of the later books. You can't blame Kate for not trying, however: unfortunately she gets sabotaged and sidelined while driving in Reed's Volkswagen down to New York City to investigate a certain trail.
I liked the bits with the Volkswagen, by the way, it's one of the few elements that is really of the Sixties. Additionally drive-in theater figures in the climax. (Supposedly they are making a comeback in our plague year plus.) I don't believe Kate had ever been to a drive-in; snobbishly, she is grateful that the film they see doesn't have Elvis Presley ("Reed, I will not see Elvis Presley"), though regrettably it does have Disney adolescent star Hayley Mills. Heilbrun doesn't go in for extensive descriptions but there is some interesting detail as well about hay-baling and dairying, which obviously was derived from the author's personal observation.
|Kate Fansler was not an Elvis fan!|
Elvis' film Double Trouble was released
in 1967, same year The Jame Joyce
Murder was published and a became
the 58th highest grossing film of the year
The rural people--rustics they might have been called in a genuine between-the-wars British mystery--speak more naturally, as does Kate's nephew Leo, who actually is one of the more delightful parts of the book. He's quite a believable kid, as he repeats for the adults all the dubious wisdom imparted daily by his day camp leader, a Mr. Artifoni. I think Leo appeared in later books in the series as well.
Unfortunately it is through Leo that the subject of homosexuality comes up, as we learn Kate was worried her that her "effeminate" graduate assistant Emmet and/or Mr. Artifoni himself might have been gay and thus potential sexual predators against her eight-year-old charge. The way this comes up is like it's all part of the joke, but that hardly makes things better. (In fact treating pedophilia as a subject for mirth makes it worse.)
Certainly the language is decidedly un-PC, or let's just be blunt and say offensive. Here's an exchange between Willian and Emmet, not one of the book's high points, certainly:
Why, then, do you affect these effete mannerisms, positively inviting everyone within earshot or reach of gossip to consider you limp of wrist?
How do you know I'm not limp of wrist, as you so coarsely put it--if you'll forgive my saying so?
For one thing, you visibly restrain a shudder every time you look at Leo."
"I've got nothing against fags, as it happens, though they do seem to have been swarming over the landscape recently, but you've been carrying on a passionate love affair for three years with a married woman. Why do you insist on suggesting that you couldn't be aroused to passion by anything more feminine than a choirboy?"
Later on we get this exchange, when Emmet suggests to Kate that Mr. Artifoni might have killed Mary Bradford:
"Then there's Artifoni, into whose affairs I would dearly love to look. Oh, stop worrying about Leo, Kate, I'm sure he's righteous as all get-out with small boys, but how much was the woman affecting his camp? Also I don't want to cast aspersions in these matters, if they are aspersions, but Americans might do well to wake up to the fact that homosexual men who deeply resent women are not absolutely always those who go about prancing like little fawns. My suspicions, were I inclined to have any, would certainly be directed at men who spend their whole working time directing boys' activities, their whole playtime at games for boys, their whole spectator time watching male sports, and if they marry, always have five crew-cut sons. I bet they drown the girls at birth. Mary Bradford may not have figured all this out, but who knows what her suspicions were. That woman had a nose for scandal, you have to give that to her."
"Emmet, are you suggesting that I have not only exposed my nephew to murder, but have placed him in a camp filled with queers?"
|my reaction to these passages|
(actor Paul Lynde)
Perhaps there's a point here about not all "woman-hating" gays (or fags or queers, to use the terminology of these highly-educated academics) being screaming queens, with some of them being highly homosocial, "masculine" men, but, still, ugh, just ugh. It was a common view back then that gay men had extreme aversion to women (which is why they were gay), but I'd have expected something a bit more sophisticated from this author, who, to her credit, learned some nuance over time, I believe.
These passages aside, I actually found The James Joyce Murder a charming and amusing book, with a quite acceptable little mystery at its heart. And, yes, it's extremely literate and Joycean. As you may have noticed a number of the characters are named after characters in Ulysses. There is a lot of discussion of the works of Joyce and, in fact, the chapters of the novel all are cleverly named after stories in Joyce's classic collection Dubliners. Hence the village in the novel, based on Alford, is called Araby. How else the great Irish author fits into the murderous scheme of things I leave you to find for yourself, if you haven't read the novel already. Me, I read Dubliners in college, but The James Joyce Murder made me want to read Dubliners again, even if there are, as I recollect, no actual murders in it.