Commentary
10:57 am
Fri January 22, 2010

Amanda Cross' Kate Fansler debut is 'uncommon mystery'

Murray, KY – Now that schools across the region are back in full swing, it's once again time to dawn that literary hat and pick up a good read. Commentator Michael Cohen recommends an academic murder mystery by Carolyn Heillbrun, who wrote under the pseudonym, Amanda Cross. Cohen peaks through the pages of her first novel starring literature professor Kate Fansler, titled In The Last Analysis.

Kate Fansler teaches literature at an unnamed private university in New York. A student of hers, Janet Harrison, asks her to recommend a psychiatrist. The year is 1962, and psychiatry is all the rage. Kate is not sure she believes in psychiatrists, but she has slept with one, and she gives her student the name of her former lover, Dr. Emanuel Bauer. Several months later Kate discovers that Janet Harrison has been found, murdered, on Emanuel Bauer's couch.

It appears that the police have no intention of investigating the murder beyond finding more evidence to incriminate their only suspect, Dr. Bauer. Kate decides to do a little investigating herself. She enlists the aid of an old friend, Reed Amherst, who is an Assistant District Attorney, and she is also helped by Jerry, a young man about to marry Kate's niece. Fansler figures out that Janet learned a secret about the offices Dr. Bauer shares with other doctors. Specifically, she discovered that the gynecologist in the adjoining office is not in fact Dr. Michael Barrister, whose name is on the door. Harrison, it turns out, had once been the real Barrister's lover. So the book, in the last analysis, is very much a tale of former lovers.

A literary allusion to D.H.Lawrence's The Rainbow tips Fansler off to the truth. And that's fitting because Amanda Cross was the pseudonym of Carolyn Heilbrun, an English literature scholar who taught for many years at Columbia. In 1972 Heilbrun became the first woman tenured and promoted to a full professorship at Columbia, a fact and a date that implies a good deal of resistance to women and an old school, old boy network at that university. Not surprisingly, Heilbrun became a feminist.

In the Last Analysis was the first of Heilbrun's Kate Fansler mysteries, and for a time only the publishers knew the identity of these books' author. By the time Heilbrun was revealed as Amanda Cross, she had tenure, and there couldn't be any reprisals for some of the highly unflattering depictions of her colleagues that show up in her books. Heilbrun wrote fourteen Kate Fansler novels in all, and this first one is less concerned with academic life than most of the others. The series ended with The Edge of Doom, published a year before her death. She also wrote books of literary criticism and personal books about writing, about being a woman author, and about aging. Heilbrun committed suicide at the age of 77 in 2003.

Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University. "In The Last Analysis" by Carolyn Heilbrun was first published in 1964.