Amanda Cross, The Question of Max (1976)

I’m back! Wow, what a great restful time far from the world! We had a lot of fun visiting countless castles and palaces and Czech countryside is a great place to enjoy summer and nature. No internet, no mobile phone and no e-mail for 3 weeks: that really helped us to refocus on our family, especially as we didn’t speak much Czech. I’ll post about great bookshops and libraries visited on the way. I hope you all had a great summer too. I had a lot of time to read and write, so now, I have to type all those blog posts I drafted longhand!

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My first experience with Amanda Cross was a short story in Sarah Paretsky’s collection. A witty, cozy academic mystery always is a good idea, all the more when you know that Amanda Cross is the pen name of Carolyn Heilbrun, a professor of English lit at Columbia. When I picked a French edition of The question of Max (back in July), I thought that the cut-throat competition in academic circles was going to be a bit more literal than literary for once.

Alas! The French voice of heroin Kate Fansler was unconvincing at best: she navigated between stiffness (throwing citations around) and forced friendliness (going to basketball matches with her teenaged nephew) without really managing to be witty. I guess it’s hard to translate wit in French especially when there’s no exact equivalent for the word. Our French word for wit, “esprit”, often sounds pedantic.

I could well have forgiven the bad translation, but then plotting didn’t seem to be Cross’ forte either. Kate is your very (and I mean very) chatty aunt who has to paint every bit of background right before getting to the point of the story (if she ever gets there). In that sense it’s not a real mystery because one-third of the book goes before anyone ends up dead (a very minor character), and two third go before we even get to ask the question of who killed, how and why. For traditional mystery lovers, it’s highly frustrating because you wait, wait and wait and eventually the whole murder business itself is folded in no more than 30 pages.

The whole book is more of a pretext for portraits of 3 friends in WWI and the 1920s who were among the first women to graduate from Oxford university. Why university professor and feminist Fansler gets interested in them is quite understandable, but the rest lacks connections and momentum. She had lost me before really tackling the “question of Max”, for which I’m afraid the answer was a little too obvious. But the whole series held so many promises that I gave Amanda Cross and Kate Fansler a second chance and took another mystery of hers with me in holidays.

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3 thoughts on “Amanda Cross, The Question of Max (1976)

  1. A belated welcome back! Glad you had such a nice holiday. I’m not much of a mystery reader but I love Amanda Cross. Haven’t read her in ages though and I am pretty sure I haven’t read this one so I should look it up one of these days!

  2. Pingback: Amanda Cross, Sweet Death, Kind Death (1984) « Smithereens

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