Carolyn Gold Heilbrun John Leonard - Essay

John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Death in a Tenured Position" is set at Harvard. (p. 253)

Miss Cross, in the person of Kate, hates Harvard and quotes Henry James. She quotes Henry James because Kate always quotes somebody in every Amanda Cross mystery—as if she were trying to be Harriet Vale in a novel by Dorothy Sayers—and she hates Harvard because of sexism.

"Death in a Tenured Position" is a good mystery and a very angry book. The dead professor, Janet Mandelbaum, was not a feminist; otherwise, she would never have been offered her job. Kate, however, is a feminist, and since her husband, Reed, the assistant district attorney, has been exiled to Africa for the duration of this novel, she has the leisure to investigate and fulminate. The fulminations are acidulous; the situation may even be worse. How many females at Harvard with tenure can you name?

Janet dies because she is a woman in a place where they don't want women. Miss Cross, who has in the past suffered from fits of coyness, is so mad this time that her mystery moves into a higher gear. We sit in on department meetings, go to wretched parties, listen to insufferable people and emerge hurting. To be sure, there are dogs named Jocasta and Virginia Woolf T-shirts, and references to Simone Weil and George Herbert. And a man tells Kate: "I love it when you use words like beastly." But the mood is generally bitter; Miss Cross seeks less to entertain than to revile.

She not only makes her point, she also hammers on it, leaving a nail in our skulls. That we, and Harvard, deserve that nail, is incontestable. Miss Cross may go too far, in her disdain of Cambridge, by suggesting that there's no place to walk except around the Mount Auburn cemetery, and she is surely wrong in permitting someone to say that no one at Harvard bothers with the Red Sox. She arrives, though, at a nasty truth. (pp. 253-54)

John Leonard, "'Reflex' and 'Death in a Tenured Position'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 20, 1981 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. IV, No. 6, June, 1981, pp. 252-54).∗