Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 13-14

Cornwell, Patricia. Post-Mortem. New York: 1990.

An award-winning investigative journalist, Cornwell’s first book was a well-received biography of Ruth Bell Graham, the wife of evangelist Billy Graham, published in the mid-1980s. She subsequently worked as a technical writer and computer analyst with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia. This experience inspired her creation of fictional medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, the main character in a series of mystery-detective novels that has now extended to almost a dozen and a half titles.

For Post-Mortem, the first novel in the series, Cornwell received an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, an Anthony Award from the Boucheron/World Mystery Convention, a John Creasey Award from the British Crime Writers Association, a Macavity Award from Mystery Readers International, and French Prix du Roman d’Adventure. The novel establishes Scarpetta’s difficulties in trying to succeed in a traditionally male profession, difficulties exacerbated by the pressure to identify and stop a serial rapist and murderer. The novel also establishes the tone of the series: a scientific but unsparing attention to the details of Scarpetta’s work and a sympathetic but candid treatment of her professional and personal relationships.

Cross, Amanda. Death in a Tenured Position. New York: Dutton, 1981.

Amanda Cross is the pseudonym that Carolyn Gold Heibrun used for her mystery novels. Heibrun was a feminist scholar and the first female faculty member to be hired and tenured in the English Department at Columbia University. In her last published book, When Men Were the Only Models We Had (2002), she acknowledged the mentorship that she received from Jacques Barzun, Lionel Trilling, and Clifton Fadiman, but in her professional life and in a half-dozen scholarly books with a feminist slant, Heilbrun clearly provided a model for female faculty who followed her at Columbia and elsewhere. Indeed, late in her academic career, she became very publicly combative over Columbia’s failure to tenure more feminist scholars in her department.

In all but one of the fifteen mystery novels that she wrote as Amanda Cross, she focused on the amateur sleuth, Kate Fansler. Like the author herself, Fansler is an academic with a strong interest in feminist studies. The series, like most series with academic settings, fits largely within the “cozy” tradition. For the most part, the characters are very accomplished and socially respectable, and the crimes that Fansler investigates are terrible anomalies within the university setting—that is, they are all the more shocking because they seem the sort of thing that would more naturally occur just about anywhere else. The author takes full advantage of the readily available juxtaposition of advanced and sometimes esoteric studies and very base compulsions to commit acts of violence.

Death in a Tenured Position is probably the most well-known Fansler novel, in part because it received the Nero Award. Fansler investigates the death by poison of the first female faculty member in the English Department at Harvard University. Although the woman had been hired with tenure as a full professor, she had quickly realized that her colleagues regarded her as a “token hire” and, therefore, had very little respect for her very real accomplishments. Worse, other female academics began to regard her critically for not behaving as if her seemingly singular position had given her real stature. The novel provides an acute portrait of the vicious venality that often underlies the formal propriety of the academic life, and in that sense, it incorporates some elements of the hardboiled crime novel into the narrative framework of the “cozy.”

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Previous Posts in This Series:

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 1-2: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-1-2/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 3-4: https://academeblog.org/2015/07/02/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-3-4/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 5-6: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/07/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-5-6/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 7-8: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/11/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-7-8/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 9-10: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/18/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-9-10/.

Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 1-12: https://academeblog.org/2015/09/19/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-11-12/.

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Previous Series:

The final post in each series is followed by links to all of the previous posts in that series.

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/.

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/02/13370/

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