An astute reader of my opening post of the year will have realised that I have had mixed results with my various possible reading plans; Durrell and “Finnegans Wake” obviously went out of the window (not literally!) fairly quickly. However, I have managed to enjoy several books for the Japanese Literature Challenge, two for NordicFINDS and have a post on “Prince Caspian” coming up on Monday for the #Narniathon!

The other event I mentioned was a year-long focus on Virago Modern Classics, with a monthly theme to guide the reading. January was governesses or people in education, and I had a couple of possibilities. In the end, I stretched the definition a little (because although the protagonist works in a university, this isn’t a VMC) and read my second Kate Fansler mystery title – “No Word from Winifred” by Amanda Cross.

My previous encounter with a Fansler story was “A Death in the Faculty” which I read back in October 2021; it was certainly an enjoyable book, more rooted in feminism and academia than an actual crime if I’m honest. In fact, truth be told, on the evidence of the two stories I’ve read, Cross seems to shy away from actual murder…

“No Word…” is the 8th book in the series, first published in 1987, so we’ve moved along a couple of years from “Faculty”. Kate Fansler is still notionally teaching, and her husband Reed seems to have moved from law enforcement to teaching law. Kate is persuaded to go to a family dinner organised by her brother, something she would normally avoid like the plague, but Reed wants to network. So the couple attend, and this contact opens up a can of worms. Her brother Larry’s law firm partner, Toby, has a story to tell about an English woman writer who made a will in the US. This leads to a complex tale of a missing scholar, the English writer’s adopted niece who was hiding in obscurity at an American farm; several chapters containing her journal entries which reveal her life in England and her relationship with her aunt and Oxford academia; and a side plot involving Toby’s secret lover who is writing a biography of the aunt. Charlie, Toby’s partner, had tracked down the niece, Winifred, but the latter had then disappeared completely. Mix in Kate’s niece Leighton who wants to act as her Watson, lots of MFA conferences, a trip to California, a detective who’s found out nothing, lots more Academics, hints of illegitimate children and a number of people becoming obsessed with Winifred, and you might start to feel, as I did, that the pudding has been a little over-egged here…

Looking back at my post on “A Death in the Faculty”, I noticed I said this about it: “If I’m truly honest, much as I enjoyed this book, I think the mystery element is actually not the dominant part of it. Cross seems to me to be using her detective and her plot as props upon which to hang a lot of dicussion of feminist issues, and the actual resolution of the murder is a teeny bit underwhelming.” My response rings true with this book, too, and although I enjoyed “Death…” a lot, I found myself struggling a little with “Winifred”. The plot is just too convoluted to my mind, and actually took quite a switch halfway through when certain characters and elements were introduced.

I accept that Cross is using her fiction to make points, and the book is pleasingly dotted with literary in-jokes; and in fact I suspect some of the characters and sub-plots are referencing the life of Dorothy L. Sayers. However, because there were so many elements mixed into the story it never cohered for me, and certainly doesn’t really work as a mystery. I was once more underwhelmed by the ending, which to be honest felt like a bit of a cop-out. I rather feel that Cross shied away from committing to a proper crime novel, and it would have been a bit better if she’d simply done a straightforward novel exploring her ideas rather than hanging a mystery on it.

I have to say that there *is* much here that’s of interest; Cross is keen to explore the nature of female friendship, one of the strongest strands of the book, and she also takes a look at how women scholars function and the differences in their lives and work compared to men. These are all very engaging elements, but rather drowned in the complexity of the story and the need to have some kind of investigation. There are also strands which are a tad unbelievable, and the character of Winifred herself is a little lacking; for a woman who inspires so much devotion, passion and interest she’s oddly undefined and I wondered a little at the effect she has on other characters.

“No Word from Winifred” was a fairly quick read, and passed the time nicely during a difficult period at work. But I really do think that to have it as a “Virago Crime” edition is stretching things, as the crime aspect of the story is actually the least important and there’s frankly more emphasis on social comment than mysteries! Not an entirely bad book but I’ll approach the final Cross I own with caution…