Amanda Cross, Sweet Death, Kind Death (1984)

I’m rather satisfied to have given university professor cum amateur sleuth Kate Fansler another go after my first bumpy experience, because this mystery set in a Massachusetts women college was more enjoyable than the previous one, even if I still have reservations.

My reading did gain from having the English version this time, as many dialogues are witty, especially when exploring the hypocrisy of the conservative faculty concerning women studies. I don’t know how true that was at the time (early 1980s), and I do hope it has changed in 30 years. Something Amanda Cross does well is characterization and literary allusions. With such a title, and a theme centered on middle-aged women and death, there was a whole festival of quotes, from Woolf to Sylvia Townsend Warner (whom I love to be reminded of).

Alas, the book still lacks pace and plot. The cover proclaims: “when a troublesome professor drowns at a prestigious New England college, Kate Fansler goes after the truth.” Of course, by the end of chapter 2, the biographers of the said troublesome professor have asked the rhetorical question every reader awaits: “you were suspicious, Kate said. You don’t believe she walked into that lake.” That’s page 21 in my old edition.

The problem is that if you fast-forward to page 173 (roughly 25 pages before the end), Kate is still dillydallying around the answer which is obviously “no”, otherwise there would be no mystery and no book. In between those 2 points there are many entertaining characters and scenes but very few that move the plot further.

Kate gets to understand more and more the deceased, an oddball feminist middle-aged professor who didn’t believe in nostalgia nor in awe for youth, but rather that middle-age is a new beginning and that death is nothing to be afraid of. My guess is that this professor is an expression of Cross (aka Carolyn Heibrun) herself, and she makes her alive and interesting, but once again, investigation of a possible murder is much more a pretext than the central revolving point.

In the last 25 pages Fansler even gets rid of the cumbersome questions of who / how / why by delegating the investigation itself (!), as if all that counts was already set and done. I don’t quite see the appeal of choosing such a conventional genre if the writer doesn’t follow at least the pattern. I guess this book is best suited for people who don’t like mysteries that much. I would dream to see it completely rewritten as a satire of college novels with a very much alive oddball professor.


2 thoughts on “Amanda Cross, Sweet Death, Kind Death (1984)

  1. I would like to try this series at some point, although I’ll keep your reservations in mind, and my husband has some reservations about the class dynamics in the book. But I do love academic novels of all sorts, so I want to see what I think at some point.

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