(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

From the beginning, Amanda Cross knew what she wanted to do with her detective. She wrote that Kate Fansler “sprang from [her] brain” as a champion of the decencies, of intelligent conversation, and of a literary legacy that challenges those who know it to be worthy inheritors. Kate was also conceived as a combatant of “reaction, stereotyped sex roles, and convention that arises from the fear of change.”

A certain Noël Coward esque conversational flair is a hallmark of the Cross mystery. This prologue from In the Last Analysis illustrates the connection between the sparkling wit and the probing intelligence that make Kate a stimulating teacher, a successful detective, and a good friend:“I didn’t say I objected to Freud,” Kate said. “I said I objected to what Joyce called freudful errors—all those nonsensical conclusions leaped to by people with no reticence and less mind.” “If you’re going to hold psychiatry responsible for sadistic parlor games, I see no point in continuing the discussion,” Emanuel answered. But they would continue the discussion nonetheless; it had gone on for years, and showed no sign of exhausting itself.

A conversation that goes on for years is just what Cross had in mind: provocative conversation about modern dilemmas and timeless issues, into which, now and then, Death intrudes.

Kate Fansler’s conversations ring with allusions, analogies, and epigrams. The first page alone of the first novel makes mention of T. S. Eliot, Julius Caesar, William Butler Yeats, Johann Sebastian Bach, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Jane Austen. These scholarly references are more than surface ornamentation, it should be said; to this erudite detective, the word-hoard of Western civilization suggests both theme and imaginative method. There is a particular figure, for example, looming behind the mystery of who killed Kate’s student on her psychiatrist’s couch: Sigmund Freud himself.

Poetic Justice

In The James Joyce Murder (1967), it is the Irish literary genius who serves as the intellectual model, and the poet W. H. Auden is the sleuth’s guiding spirit in the third novel, Poetic Justice (1970). Frustrated by the blind waste of the campus revolts, Kate thinks a line of Auden’s: “ . . . unready to die, but already at the stage when one starts to dislike the young.” She later recovers her tolerance of the young; in later novels she even succeeds in appreciating them, and she matures in other ways as well. That success, her continued growth as a character, the reader is made to sense, is in large part attributable to such influences as that of Auden, who, for his pursuit of frivolity balanced by earnestness, she calls “the best balancer of all.”

Auden’s influence reaches beyond the events of one novel, actually, and into the broader considerations of theory. It was Auden, after all, who laid down with such left-handed ease the consummate protocol for Aristotelian detective plotting in “The Guilty Vicarage.” Dorothy L. Sayers, whom Kate quotes frequently, edited the perceptive survey The Omnibus of Crime (1928-1934) and wrote “Aristotle on Detective Fiction,” an entertaining and imaginative look at the detective story’s qualifications as genuine art. These two serve as Cross’s authorities on matters of form.

Particularly in her early novels, Cross adheres rather closely to the formal requirements and conventional elements of the classic detective story. Her stories begin in peaceful settings or retreats, such as Kate’s office, a pastoral campus, or the edenic Berkshires; this is the stage Auden calls False Innocence. Quite soon ironic shadows develop. (The campus is so quiet, for example, because students have captured the administration building.) Then a murder is discovered. Kate finds herself in a predicament because she knows and feels some commitment to the victim, the suspect, or both, and she stays because her sense of decency impels her.

After noting numerous clues and considering various apparently innocent suspects (and engaging in fascinating conversations), Kate, assisted by Reed and sometimes by her own version of the Baker Street Irregulars, tests the evidence, makes her deductions, and reaches a solution. The story ends with an arrest, a confession, or some final illumination and a return to a peaceful state. In Auden’s terms, the Real Guilt has been located and True Innocence achieved.

Though her plotting is solid, plotting is not Cross’s principal concern. Like any mystery author worth her salt, Cross wants to challenge the conventions and transcend the formula. She is greatly interested in change, growth, and innovation, and she is deeply concerned about resistance to change, stagnation, and suspicion of the new. In one novel Kate calls this kind of poor thinking confusing morality with convention. Kate seems invariably to take the unconventional position—defending psychiatry, supporting young Vietnam draft resisters, advocating feminism—but in reality she, too, is subject to the conventions through which all human beings see and understand their lives, and she, too, is challenged to change. In effect, with each new novel Cross tests her hypothesis that when conventions (literary or social) no longer promote genuine morality or serve a civilizing purpose, they should be modified.

By insisting on the primacy of character—that is, of personal integrity—Cross bends one of the cardinal rules of the detective genre. Sayers herself, following Aristotle, wrote that there can be a detective story without character, but there can be no story without plot. Without neglecting plot, Cross makes character the solution to the crime of In the Last Analysis. It is Kate’s belief in the intrinsic nature of her friend Emanuel—something that the police investigators cannot know and cannot consider—and her willingness to trust Nicola’s dream that lead her to the distant witness who eventually remembers the physical evidence without which the police cannot work. Similarly, the discussions of Freudian analysis and of dreams in that same novel make the point that intuitive and associative...

(The entire section is 2544 words.)