Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen

Detectives unstuck in time: the down side

I don't know if I'll remember to talk about this if I wait for the book post upon my return from Montreal, so I'll just do it here: I'm reading Amanda Cross's Honest Doubt, and it reminded me of something that disappointed me about The Puzzled Heart, the previous mystery with detective Kate Fansler.

See, Kate Fansler is middle-aged. I thought she just happened to be middle-aged when we started with her, but no. She is apparently middle-aged the way that Nero Wolfe is fat: as a defining characteristic we cannot have changed. She is clearly getting older as the books go along, but in The Puzzled Heart we ran into a problem: we have reached the late 1990s. If Kate Fansler was already a tenured professor who could be described as middle-aged when we meet her in 1964, is she still middle-aged in 1998? Maybe. I'm kind of skeptical that most people would parse it that way. And apparently Amanda Cross was skeptical, too, because she moved things a bit. Suddenly Kate remembers being a grad student in The Sixties -- not just the 1960s, it is clear, but the bit of them with hippies in. Her ex-lover Moon changes from being explicitly described in terms of having reached hippiedom before there were hippies to...just being another hippie.

And that's where I have the problem. I had very little problem with Nero Wolfe existing in a perpetual "now-ish" that didn't substantially intersect with my own life. But Rex Stout does not appear to have written those books to say interesting things about Wolfe and Archie as members of a particular generation. And that's not true of Kate Fansler. Part of what makes Kate so fascinating over the first severalmany books of the series is that she is from that group that came of age just after WWII but predated the Baby Boomer, and her experiences as a female professor (drawn substantially, I think everyone presumes, from Amanda Cross's experiences under her real name, Carolyn Heilbrun) in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. I think you have to make a choice as an author, between placing your characters in real years and living with the consequences, or going for the vague now-ish that will stick with you indefinitely and losing some fascinating influences and ideas thereby.

I would have loved to hear about Kate being what a lot of people would parse as old in the '90s. I would have loved to hear about Kate nearing the period when most of her contemporaries were retiring, about her lanky elegance moving into the slightly more careful lanky elegance of old age. But I don't think that Amanda Cross thinks as well as I do of old people, so instead what I got was a different character, Kate becoming someone Kate would have mentored with exasperation and affection and bewilderment. In these very last books, Amanda Cross seems to have backed away from some of the intimate specificity that has made Kate Fansler herself. I'm still going to read to the end. I'll probably even enjoy the books to a certain extent. But I must confess myself disappointed, if it ends this way, if she doesn't bring back just a little bit of the real Kate in the end.

I am only slightly mollified with St. Bernards.
Tags: bookses precious
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