"Things have been pretty easy on the Harvard English Department up to now.... But if we don't find out the truth about this. I can promise you that the department and all its members are going to be very much involved." --page 129
THE INEXORABLE FORCES of history have finally caught up with that inexorable force of the past, the Harvard English Department. Some anonymous and mischievious benefactor has offered the University $1 million for a professorship in those rarefied precincts, provided the holder is a woman. Harvard's last sanctuary is about to be violated, and there are inhabitants thereof who do not wish to see it happen.
That is the premise of Death in a Tenured Position, the latest mystery by Amanda Cross. For the uninitiated. Cross novels feature the redoubtable Kate Fansler, a tenured 16th-century English literature professor at a New York City university, much like Columbia. Fortyish, WASPish, with a casual marriage to an assistant district attorney and a prodigious capacity for alcohol. Fansler moonlights as an academic sleuth. Leaving details like fingerprints and forensics to the police. Fansler sleuths by intuition and cunning. She does not carry a gun.
And Kate is skeptical, impatient, ambitious and confident: she seems the perfect antagonist for the institution she takes on in this, the sixth Cross book. The Harvard that appears in Death in a Tenured Position is big, smug, successful and emphatically male--a sort of hybrid of the oracle of Delphi and the balcony men's room at the Boston Garden. Its entrenched inhabitants greet change with affection usually reserved for sneezing leprosy victims.
The victim in question is Janet Mandelbaum, the first owner of the endowed chair. An impressive scholar of dubious social skills. Mandelbaum finds a cold welcome in Warren House, the Holy See of Harvard English. As the title suggests, she winds up with a lot worse than a cold shoulder, and Professor Fansler is summoned to find out exactly what happened.
So Fansler hustles a fellowship at Radcliffe and moves to Cambridge--Dunster House, specifically--to unravel the sordid tale. When Fansler makes it to Harvard, remarkably few events occur. The body of her story is little action and lots of chat and gossip and more chat--Robert Ludlum she is not.
The entire affair, in fact, might grow a little tedious, if it weren't for Cross's wonderfully insightful eye. She captures not just the back-stabbing civility of Harvard politics, but the unique pace and style of the University and its city. Cross is best with the little touches that provide what Poe called the potent magic of verisimilitude (each character in this bookish book continually quotes and attributes in mid-sentence). Examples of the Cross eye: a sophisticated senior's statement to a mystified outsider. "Oh, nobody uses money at the Coop": or an accurate assessment of Lamont (squeaky floors) vs. Hilles (empty except during reading period) libraries: or the Independent's paranoia about The Crimson: or the fact that no one shovels snow off Cambridge sidewalks. All of these add up to a remarkably persuasive and amusing portrait of life in these environs.
On a more serious side. Cross's picture of graduate student and junior faculty life is more devastating than any number of reports by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Terrorized by the tenured elite, condescended to by the students and spit out by the University when their time is up, these cogs in the big Harvard machine lead a pretty grim existence. One of them says:
Whenever any of us get together, Harvard is all you talk about. Before Janet, it was other things: how badly the students are treated, how snotty the professors are, endless things. And yet, [we] grabbed the chance to come here. That's what Harvard lives on, that reputation. If some of the best of you, teachers and students, would say no and mean it, even Harvard might begin to guess it ought to change. But power can always buy what it wants.
Cross knows her stuff. But she sermonizes little, and the business of mystery-solving remains paramount throughout the proceedings.
OF COURSE. Death in a Tenured Position stubs its toes a few times along the way. Cross seems confused about the ages of her characters; a man who seems thirtyish suddenly becomes a World War II vet, for example. The denouement of the mystery is predictable and dull. And a minor annoyance: Cross's work suffers from the classic academician's addiction to the semi-colon. Alas, it is no surprise, considering Amanda Cross is, in real life, Carolyn Heilbrun, a tenured professor of English at (of all places) Columbia.
But the flaws are ultimately insignificant, and Death is a quick-reading delight. There is one question, however, that begs an answer, particularly to Harvard readers: which inhabitants of Cross's Warren House represent the real-life versions? In fairness, it must be noted that the book begins with an elaborate and extended disclaimer. It reads, in part: "Since Harvard University, Cambridge, many of the places and some of the people mentioned in this novel do exist, it is the more important to declare unequivocally that none of the persons actually appearing in this novel... bears any resemblance to anyone anywhere."
Yet, as Hamlet's mother said, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." (That's III, ii, 242, sports fans.) None of the comparisons are too obvious, but, at least in composite, Cross seems to have several Cantabridgian faculty members in mind. In cowardly deference to my own academic (and perhaps physical) safety. I will say only that I think the comparisons exist and leave the conclusions to perceptive readers of Death in a Tenured Position. They will enjoy the assignment; Cross has suited action to word and word to action in a delightful book that flows trippingly on the tongue.