Saturday, January 30, 2021

Town Mouse, Country Mouse: Richard Nunley on Amanda Cross' The James Joyce Murder (1967)

The country was more beautiful than ever in the evening light.  The farms seemed set out on the hills, neatly plowed fields contrasting in shades of green with their adjoining meadows.  Kate felt certain that the good life might somehow be possible here, yet knew this to be only  a dream.  

---The James Joyce Murder (1967), by Amanda Cross

The Berkshire Eagle, located in the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is the newspaper of record for Berkshire County, the state's westernmost county.  The newspaper is actually mentioned in Amanda Cross' detective novel The James Joyce Murder, which I reviewed in my last post.  Amanda Cross, aka English professor Carolyn Heilbrun (1926-2003), annually summered with her family at their home in the village of Alford, Massachusetts, giving rise to the Berkshires setting of her second mystery.  

Once Amanda Cross, whose feminism struck a nerve in the Eighties, was one of the more popular authors of classic style detective novels, particularly after the publication of her sixth mystery, Death in a Tenured Position (1981).  As far as I could tell, The James Joyce Murder went through at least nine editions between 1967 and 1993.  After the original hardcover edition, published by Macmillan's "Cock Robin" imprint in the United States and Gollancz in the United Kingdom, there a came 1970 Amanda Cross hardcover omnibus edition, Triple Cross, and another hardcover edition from Dutton in 1982, in honor of the centennial of James Joyce's birth.  Then there followed a deluge of paperback editions: Ballantine 82, Ballantine 85, Fawcett 87, Little, Brown 89, Ballantine 90 and, in the UK, Virago 93 (Virago being a feminist press which reprinted a good number of female penned mysteries in the Eighties and Nineties).  If you ever shopped at a used bookstore in the Nineties, Amanda Cross novels easy to find!  The James Joyce Murder is still in print in the US and UK today.  I'm not sure what edition the American one is, but in the UK it recently was brought out in spiffy new paper and electronic versions by Pan Macmillan.

It was in 1988 that the late Richard Nunley (1931-2016), longtime professor of English at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield (pop. 42,000 today) and Berkshire Eagle columnist (Our Berkshires), sat down and read The James Joyce Murder (Fawcett 87 edition?).  I quote extensively from Nunley's Berkshire Eagle review article, "The Grad-School Attitude," because I found Nunley's view of the novel as a social document interesting:

Berkshire Community College

Last week a friend put in my hands an Amanda Cross mystery story, "The James Joyce Murder."  I sat down and read it in two goes, though I would have read it in one if I hadn't absolutely to do something else.  It's an adroit and clever story.  Its setting is the Berkshires.  The county town the story unfolds in sounds like Alford, "unique in that it has no commercial establishments whatever," but the author pointedly places it north of Pittsfield.  Of course, it is all made up.  But the storytelling is captivating enough to set you believing the town, called "Araby," must be somewhere between Clarksburg and Mount Washington, and a secondary mystery develops for local readers to guess which one it is.

Nunley was right: "Araby" is Alford, where Heilbrun's summer home was located; but the author, who then was protective of her anonymity (she was worried that being known as a mystery writer would prevent her from receiving tenure at stuffy Columbia University), threw people like Nunley off the scent by locating Araby near Pittsfield.  Back to Nunley:

It's not a new book.  Macmillan published it in 1967....In 1988 the prices of restaurant meals and Berkshire real estate in it read laughably low, and the hero drives a VW bug and they all go to a drive-in movie, but otherwise there's not much that is dated after 20 years.  Adding to the fun is the author's saucy irreverence about the Berkshires and us locals.  The necessary victim is an odious farmer's wife whom I felt an incipient pang of sympathy for, being a local.  But somebody's got to go if you're going to have a mystery.  The main characters are New Yorkers up for the summer who think rude thoughts about us.  "A newspaper in the country!  [Reed's] astonishment turned to bemusement as he noticed it was yesterday's Berkshire Eagle."  "It transpired that Pittsfield, bless its up-to-date little heart, had a community college and a bookstore."  "Country people are incurably curious.  It's only urbanites who can ignore their neighbors."  "Taxes are high in Araby, since only houses can be assessed to raise the money for homes and schools.  The summer people are taxed, in fact though not in principle. at twice the rate of the year-round people, which, since the summer people are all clearly rich as Croesus, strikes the board of assessors as only equitable."  The city slickers get exasperated at the local telephone service and break down on the Taconic and talk of Tanglewood (but never go).  

Amanda Cross is all light heart and amusement.  One reason you keep reading is to see what smart crack she'll make about the Berkshires next.  But the book's characters left me thinking about a quite different concern, one suggested by the book but in fact far removed from its gay intentions.  Its main character, Kate Fansler, is a university English professor, and a lot of others are either literature professors or graduate students who will become English professors. Cross' characters, I emphasize, are not meant to be taken seriously, but in them she comes close to distilling something real I think not so amusing--what I call the "grad-school attitude."  

This is an attitude so marked by self-conscious and brittle flipness, a knowingness that, while it is at pains to display its erudition, is equally at pains to signal it is too sophisticated to take any of it in earnest.  The attitude assumes big cities--New York, London, Paris--are the only places for a normal person to live; anywhere else is exile.  It makes a bid deal of drinking, and smugly reads sex, normal or queer, into everything.  It spends a lot of time on gossip, either about colleagues or celebrities or the literary figures grad students study.  It involves both a lot of self-promotion and a lot of bellyaching about how society doesn't appreciate and properly reward intellectuals of the superior sort they are.  It takes affluence for granted.  In literature, it overvalues the "creative" process and originality of technique at the expense of wise content and realistic soundness of values....this "grad-school attitude"....may say far louder than any pious words to the contrary that English is irrelevant or worse, is for the ineffectual nerd and the study of language and literature is an incomprehensible frill....

Butler Library, Columbia University

Dick Nunley was a graduate of Dartmouth College and Kings College Cambridge, though I don't know whether he was an Anglophile like Heilbrun.  Certainly the two teachers, both of whom were highly regarded as teachers, held varying views of rural and urban life.  According to Nunley's 2016 obituary he was an "exacting teacher with high expectations for all," whom many of his former students, including Judy Waters, credited "with changing the course of their lives."  The same was said of  Carolyn Heilbrun after she died in 2003.  Surely no greater praise can be afforded a committed educator.

1 comment:

  1. I remember avidly reading any Amanda Cross mystery I could find, and then all of a sudden losing interest. It wasn't that my tastes matured, because they haven't by much. I was put off by one book in which Kate was unfaithful to her husband, but it also may have had to do with the "attitude" discussed above. (The remark about seeing sex in everything reminded me of the late Pauline Kael's movie reviews.) Still, I wonder if it's better or worse than the affluent urban professionals who move into rural places and start pretending to be "country." They may really like "the country" but lots of time it seems more like slumming. Your article didn't discuss politics but (especially now) rural voters are generally conservative, and someone like Kate would probably be pulling out her French-twisted hair.