Carolyn Gold Heilbrun Jean M. White - Essay

Jean M. White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Murder doesn't have to be a dreadful, dreary business, at least when it occurs in the pages of fiction. It can be told in a civilized, witty, and learned fashion with an observant eye on society's pretensions and pomposities. Ard no one has a sharper eye than Amanda Cross, whose delightful Kate Fansler, professor-cum-sleuth, returns to find Death in a Tenured Position….

One of Kate's former classmates has been appointed to the Harvard University faculty as its first woman English professor in a tenured post. Janet Mandelbaum, a dour, earnest scholar, has never been one of Kate's favorite people. But when Janet becomes the victim of a vicious prank linking her to radical lesbians, Kate goes to the rescue. She finds she can give little comfort to Janet, who soon is found dead of cyanide poisoning in a men's washroom.

If Cross has wicked fun with Harvard's entrenched male establishment, so determined to save the university from female encroachment, she is not espousing militant feminism. Kate is an independent woman who can see the absurdities of over-ardent feminists….

Cross wears the mantle of learning jauntily. Death in a Tenured Position is sprinkled with literary allusions that provide pungent commentary without becoming an exhibition of stuffy erudition. In the end, it is a quote from a 17th-century poet that provides Kate with the clue to the truth of Janet's death….

[Cross] recently confessed in a newspaper column that she has been flirting with the idea of writing a modern comedy of manners, which requires that women be equal to men in intelligence and wit. She has done just that in Death in a Tenured Position.

Jean M. White, "Mysteries: 'Death in a Tenured Position'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), March 15, 1981, p. 6.