“This isn’t a puzzle in which you’ve been guaranteed… to have all the pieces.” #ViragoCrime #KateFansler


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…


“…a full-time, tenured woman member…” #katefansler #viragocrime


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! 😀

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