As I posted at the end of August, I stumbled upon some lovely acquisitions whilst rummaging in second hand bookshops for the first time in 18 months! Like the bulk of the books making their way into the Ramblings, they’ve snuck onto the TBR, and usually the likelihood of me reading them promptly is small. However, one of the new arrivals looked intriguing and appealing; and as it was short and crime fiction, it seemed ideal for my mood of needing comfort reading – though, as enjoyable as this book was, it doesn’t exactly fit into the category of cosy crime!!

“A Death in the Faculty” by Amanda Cross was published by Virago in their Crime Fiction range in 1986, although the original publication date was 1981. Cross was actually the pseudonym of the academic Carolyn Heilbrun, and under that name she produced a series of crime novels featuring her academic detective, Kate Fansler. This particular book is sixth in the series, so I was kind of jumping in with no knowledge of previous events; though in the end that didn’t really matter.

Fansler is a rich American professor from a good family who somehow seems to have ended up detecting, as well as being married to an unconventional detective. As the book opens, Harvard’s foundations are shaking as they’re being forced to take on a female Professor in order to receive a million dollar legacy. That woman is Janet Mandelbaum, an old friend of Kate’s from graduate school with whom she’s lost touch. However, things do not seem to be going well as Janet is part of a scandalous incident involving alcohol and a radical feminist from a local collective. Janet sends for suppport via Sylvia, a mutual friend, and Kate finds herself drawn into the world of Harvard, its traditions, and actually the corruption which exists in any large, old organisation run by men… She also encounters the women of the collective who are equally unhappy about the situation, and Kate finds herself trying to find out who might be hostile enough to a female professor to take such extreme action. However, when a murder takes place the situation becomes altogether more serious and Kate is up against a number of competing groups all with their own agends as she tries to solve the mystery of who killed her old friend.

“Faculty” was an interesting read on a number of levels, not least because of the era from which it came. Fansler herself is a well-drawn character; an academic feminist like her creator, she has to deal with the disapproval of her rich family, the inherent sexism of the systems in which she works, and also the judgement she gets from the various radical feminists she meets. I’m old enough to recall the second wave of feminism which was running in the early 1980s, and then (just as now) there were extreme viewpoints. The more radical wing regarded anyone who had anything to do with men as in effect collaborators, and espoused the view that all women should be political lesbians. This, I have to say, was where I parted company with them because as far as I’m concerned, anyone’s sexual preferences are their own business (as long as we don’t get into icky, illegal stuff). So Kate has to win the trust of the women in the collective, while trying to find out about the various male academics who might be in the running as murderers. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but she does manage it – and there *is* an eventual solution.

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. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book; I did, very much, and that may well because it took me right back in time to when this kind of dialogue regarding feminism was current. Janet herself, the central character and victim, has an interesting attitude in that she wants to be accepted as an academic, not a *woman* academic, and she does have a point. However, in 1981 I think things were certainly not at the stage where that was possible (and frankly I’m not sure that we’re there yet…) Kate, an academic herself, understands that feeling but is more realistic and aware of the pitfalls for women in academia; and her meetings and discussions with the collective women are a fascinating look at the issues of the time.

Harvard 2009 (chensiyuan, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

I have to confess to being a bit of a sucker for a campus novel, and “Faculty” in some ways harks back to Sayers’ “Gaudy Night” which tackles women in academia too, as well as having a crime. There’s some very sharp commentary on academic politics, as well as exploration of constant daily misogyny women faced (and still do), whether covertly or in the attitudes of men who think it’s ok to grope a woman whenver the mood takes them. Cross writes well, captures her setting and characters beautifully, and explores the issues so interestingly. There were also plenty of literary references and in-jokes which were amusing distractions; for example, an aspect of the mystery hinged on Yvonne Kapp’s biography of Eleanor Marx which was at one time published by Virago! So this was a satisfying read on the many levels on which it operates, and I did enjoy watching Kate look at Harvard and its environs with a witty, cynical eye. Cross/Heilbrun herself was an intriguing woman, and I’d rather like to explore more of her Kate Fansler books to see where she went with the character. But for the time being, I’m very glad I picked this up on a whim – a great read! 😀