One of the outstanding characteristics of distinguished institutions is an external image that should not stand out. The Theban, one of New York’s best and most expensive girls’ schools, has no name or sign on the door. The featureless building, reminiscent of a government agency, is “on one of those charming side streets that seem unchanged from earlier, happier times”.
Which of course both – the standstill and happiness – is an illusion. The fact that classes are being held here only becomes apparent in the afternoon when buses drive up to take the students home.
The American English scholar Carolyn Heilbrun, who called herself Amanda Cross as a writer, mastered the stylistic device of smugness. Her description of the college for daughters, the setting of the novel Theban Death, is peppered with taunts. The Theban had already been closed due to wars, anti-war protests, hurricanes, strikes and power outages. Now it has to be closed due to police investigations. The body of a student’s mother was found in the drawing room.
Heilbrun, who died in 2003 at the age of 77, became known for her crime novels in which literary scholar Kate Fansler solves tricky cases. As a linguist, she seems predestined for detective work, except that she usually sniffs texts with her nose, looking for clues.
Like her creator, Fansler teaches at a New York university. She has taken a leave of absence to write a book on Victorian literature. Instead, she fills in for a sick teacher at the Theban – her old school – and holds a seminar on Antigone.
After The Last Analysis and The James Joyce Murder, Theban Death is the third crime novel by Amanda Cross to be published in a German-language new edition. The original came out in 1971 when America was deeply divided. The setting is reminiscent of the fireplace sophistication of the whodunit novels by Dorothy L. Sayers or Agatha Christie, but the atmosphere is turbulent.
The students interpret Antigone politically, as a fighter rebelling against the establishment and the military-industrial complex. In Creon, Antigone’s antagonist, they see a tyrant with the features of the hated President Richard Nixon. Tough rhetorical battles are fought, which makes the plot sophisticated but also a bit brittle.
One of the girls – something like Antigone’s revenant – hides her brother, who does not want to be drafted into the Vietnam War, in the basement of the institute. At night, the rooms are guarded by two vicious-looking Dobermans.
In reality they are harmless. But her master, the caretaker, is a former army colonel and reactionary law and order man who would be considered capable of murder.
But was the dead mother actually murdered? “Look things in the face and don’t lower your eyes,” says Kate Fansler, the intrepid trailblazer. In doing so, she urges the students to stand up for equality. But crimes can be solved with the same maxim.