Monday, June 15, 2009

Honest Doubt & The Puzzled Heart by Amanda Cross

Carolyn Heilbrun, writing under the pseudonym of Amanda Cross, has been turning out mystery novels for many years, and while I’m sure she would be the first to insist that her Kate Fansler detective novels are not great fiction, not even great mysteries, she has certainly found an excellent form for her feminist political commentary. Kate Fansler, the heroine of the novels is, like Heilbrun, a professor of literature, but much more outspoken and brash in her social and political views. Death in a Tenured Position is probably the best known of the Cross novels, and while humorous and fast paced, it is a bitingly accurate picture of the discrimination women faced in universities of the 70s. Her 2000 novel, Honest Doubt, shows that in the most important ways, little has changed since then. But Heilbrun decides to give us an outsider’s view of university life by introducing a new detective, Estelle “Woody” Woodhaven, who has neither Fansler’s social standing nor her experience in the Academy. Woody is a much more blue collar detective, hired by a small New England university, Clifton, to try to find the murderer of a much disliked senior professor and department Chair. Woody is advised to seek Kate Fansler’s help precisely because Fansler does know the intricacies of university politics.

Besides giving us an outside and innocent view of universities, Woody also introduces a topic that Heilbrun obviously thinks is insufficiently addressed by left-liberal politics, namely, the discrimination against fat people. Woody is, herself, a large woman, and while her size has at times given her an advantage in detecting, namely that of being invisible to almost all men and most women, she nevertheless understands the societal bias against being fat.
I collect plump people who are accomplished as well as heavy. It helps to knit up my raveled self-esteem. People seldom realize it, but fat is the only affliction that has never been protected by affirmative action, anti-bias laws, or any other category like sexual harassment, date rape, or domestic violence, though I seem to remember someone once wrote a book called Fat is a Feminist Issue. The point is, it’s okay to say and do anything to fat people short of murder, and to refuse them a job because you think their failure to lose weight is a character and mental defect. They don’t even call it heft-disadvantaged or weightily challenged.
Discussions between Fansler and Woody show just how difficult it is for most even to see fat as a political issue and how tempting it is to suppose that weight is everywhere and always a matter of choice and free will. And while Woody is helping Fansler to understand what it is like to live as a large, indeed a fat woman, Fansler tries to help Woody understand the intricacies of university life and the tenure system. Heilbrun’s way of telling the story of how older men do (both historically and at present) determine who gets hired, fired, and promoted is so witty but also so accurate; I would like to quote long passages rather than trying to overview her descriptions, but time constraints force me to summarize. Woody, ignorant of how universities operate wonders aloud to Kate why Ph.D.s continue to be awarded and graduate schools continue to expand if there are so few jobs available to the new doctorates. Why, instead, don’t universities simply stop or drastically trim the number of doctorates granted? Fansler explains that the universities want the money graduate students bring in (both in tuition and grants and state assistance); they want to maintain their standing in the academic world. In addition, older tenured professors prefer to teach graduate students, folks who are clearly interested in learning what they have to offer (unlike many undergraduates), and even more importantly, they want graduate students to teach all the large lecture sections and survey courses, the real money-makers for universities, but difficult and time-consuming for the senior staff who, after all, are promoted and rewarded not for teaching, but for publishing. Never mind that no one save a few peers actually reads what they publish, since “…what every professor wants is time to research and write a book—any book ... Teaching is not what it is about ... Not after the first few years anyway. And those for whom teaching is a joy, those who don’t long for time off, don’t get tenure; they certainly don’t get the thanks of their academic institution.”

The second of the two Cross novels I’m talking about today is The Puzzled Heart, and while it, too, is all about universities and the sexism rampant within universities, the overriding topic is that of the far right and the tactics they are willing to use to further their conservative agendas. “….the right wing in this country, Christians though they may call themselves, are besotted with their message. They are like fundamentalists everywhere, certain of their correctness and of being ordered by God to destroy those who disagree with that certainty.” Kate Fansler’s husband, himself a law professor and ex-district attorney, is kidnapped by a right wing group and held not for a ransom of money, but instead to extort from Fansler a public denial of her feminist views.

Of course, I have no intention of telling you how the plot unravels or of which groups are responsible for the kidnapping and eventually a murder. Suffice it to say that there are many opportunities for Heilbrun to show how violence against abortion clinics and abortion doctors is one strand of a right wing agenda, how donations to universities by well heeled conservatives intended to influence hiring, firing  and curriculum  are another strand in that same agenda, and how even without any overt conspiracy or mastermind the strands work together for a common evil. Always, the plot and the humor are secondary to the social commentary Heilbrun provides.

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