Honest Doubt, by Amanda Cross

Title: Honest Doubt

Author: Amanda Cross

Publication Data:  Originally published in hardcover by Ballantine, 2000.  This edition: first paper, Ballantine, 2000, ISBN 0449007049.

About this book:

“Amanda Cross” (a pseudonym of Carolyn Heilbrun) came to prominence in the detective fiction world beginning in 1964 with the publication of In the Last Analysis, the first Kate Fansler mystery.  (Heilbrun concealed her identity at first to protect her academic career.) She cemented her mystery-related position in 1981 when she won a Nero Award for Death in a Tenured Position.  Honest Doubt is the second-to-last; The Edge of Doom was published in 2002 and she committed suicide in 2003.  It is unlikely that Heilbrun would have regarded her mystery writing as her crowning achievement; she is much better known, in the academic world, for feminist literary texts — principally Writing a Woman’s Life (1988).

Kate Fansler was, I suggest, inextricably linked to Heilbrun.  Both were university professors, both were feminists, both were in love with literature and both were inexplicably involved with mysteries.  (One of Heilbrun’s academic mentors was Jacques Barzun, well known critic of detective fiction.  Perhaps that started her off.) It’s just difficult to think of a reason why  the author of Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women and a tenured professor at Columbia — the first woman to receive tenure in the English department — would bother with whodunnits.  But, as Wikipedia notes, “the novels … often were an outlet for Heilbrun’s views on feminism, academic politics, and other political issues.”  Indeed, they are all set against an academic backdrop and over the years they are increasingly more about feminism and women’s issues than murder.

The earliest mysteries are bland and intellectual, almost boring.  As her skills increased, her interest in murder qua murder seemed to decrease and, to loosely paraphrase a commenter on Michael Innes, the plots became extremely thin and supported by large jets of conversation and literary theory.  The author, indeed, became so little interested in her detective that she pretty much abandoned her, as in the present volume.

The reader should be warned; although the cutline on the front cover says “A Kate Fansler Mystery”, neither of those assertions is really true.  Kate Fansler is a faint, dim presence in this novel, rarely moving from her chair, her glass of ancient Scotch and her Saint Bernard.  The detective work here is done by the narrator, a woman private investigator named Estelle “Woody” Woodhaven.  And as to this being a mystery — well, when I finished it, I think I was more willing to describe it as being an anti-mystery.  There is a murder and the murder is, more or less, solved.  But I have to say that the ending is simultaneously one of the most ridiculous and the most aggravating in the history of detective fiction.  I can honestly say that about half the people who bother to finish this book will throw it against the wall in disgust.  It’s like the author decided to write a kind of literary joke without telling the reader, and the publisher cooperated by not even hinting at the asinine way in which this plot is “resolved”.

SPOILER WARNING:  I’m about to reveal the ending.  You may skip this, or read it and thank me for saving you time and money.

A university professor is murdered at an academic party and, as is usual in such situations, many principal characters had a reason to want him out of the way.  Most people had academic motives; the nasty professor was imperiling or frustrating their careers as he had so many others in the past.  His personal and familiar relationships were fractured or non-existent.  Woody Woodhaven is hired to bring home the guilt (frankly, for no real reason that I could see, but it matches the remainder for inventiveness and realism).  She investigates and spends two-thirds of the book demonstrating that pretty much anyone in the professor’s life not only would have killed him but had the opportunity to do so.  At this point, Kate Fansler invites Woody over to watch a screening of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express.  Kate has come to the conclusion, on no evidence whatsoever, that everyone did it.  Everyone in the book immediately agrees with this, including the police, and stops looking further.  The book ends.  And I suggest that this is what Edmund Wilson meant when he said that reading detective fiction was “unpacking large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails”.

In the meantime, we find out more than we ever may have wanted to know about Tennyson, the workings of a university’s English department, and the difficulties inherent in being a woman employed by a university, whether in an academic or secretarial position.  There is quite a bit of material about just how old men frustrate the careers of their younger and more energetic colleagues and incompetent professors rise to the top, about how secretarial staff are ignored and devalued, and no one really wants to do anything that looks like teaching (the only professor in the group who enjoys teaching and is good at it is depicted as a kind of lusus naturae).  There is, in fact, an awful lot of whining about various subjects.  Woody herself cannot shut the fuck up about being fat.  She is fat.  She says so to total strangers and, indeed, everyone to whom she speaks for more than five minutes.  She equates fat with feminism, I think, or somehow feels that being fat is a sign that she will be able to fly under the radar and remain unnoticed while solving a mystery (which, in fact, she does not do).

All things considered, this book is a kind of literary joke or game, and I found reading it extremely unpleasant.  It’s as though the author decided that she wanted to subvert, or twist, or smear dung upon, the conventions of an area of genre fiction that she had mastered — as though she were setting fire to her history and thumbing her nose at her fans who were stupid enough to enjoy her previous works of detective fiction.  She is bitter and sour about almost every topic, and almost no one in the book takes any pleasure in anything at all except, believe it or not, the beauties of the Saint Bernard dog (and teaching, as noted above).  This book is, in fact, a set of cardboard characters shuffling through a cardboard landscape executing ridiculous actions in order to mark time before the absolutely ridiculous, emotionless and flat ending is achieved.

The most interesting part of this for me was, in bitter retrospect, looking at the quotations on the back cover.  This was a main selection of the Mystery Guild, possibly chosen by someone who neglected to finish it or understand it.  Someone at the Washington Post Book World is quoted as saying “As shocking as it is plausible”.  Which, I can say, is just about zero in both cases, so the quotation is reasonably accurate.  The Providence Journal calls this “One of Cross’s best books in years”, which if I had been Ms. Heilbrun I would have found profoundly insulting.  And Sara Paretsky, also a well-known proponent of feminist-oriented detective fiction, says “For more than twenty-five years Amanda Cross has been blazing a trail for the rest of us to follow.”  What she neglected to mention is that this particular trail goes off the end of a cliff and ends up in hell.

Notes For the Collector:

As I always say, really good books hold their value and indeed increase.  I paid $1 for my paperback copy of this piece of arrogant crap and it was marked down from $5.  The first person to send me a SASE can have it, free.  The most expensive copy on Abebooks is the hardcover first signed by the author, for $140; another copy is $45.  I have to say, I wouldn’t pay $140 for a copy of this unless it had been signed by Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha and someone had thoughtfully tucked dozens of $100 bills between the pages.

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