–The New York Times Book Review
“Amanda Cross writes wonderfully witty mysteries full of well-developed characters and insights on modern foibles.”
–United Press International
“The most appealing detective since Lord Peter Wimsey.”
For a century, wealthy New York girls have been trained for the rigors of upper class life at the Theban, an exclusive private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Kate Fansler is lured back to her alma mater to teach a seminar on Antigone. But a hostile note addressed to Kate, the uniform mistrustfulness of her six, bright students, and the Dobermans/i>… See more details below
For a century, wealthy New York girls have been trained for the rigors of upper class life at the Theban, an exclusive private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Kate Fansler is lured back to her alma mater to teach a seminar on Antigone. But a hostile note addressed to Kate, the uniform mistrustfulness of her six, bright students, and the Dobermans that patrol the building at night suggest trouble on the spot. As Kate leads her class through the inexorable tragic unfolding of Antigone, a parallel nightmare envelops the school and everyone connected with it. . . .
From the Paperback edition.
The telephone and the front doorbell rang simultaneously in the Amhearst apartment with a call to action which, Reed happily observed, reminded him of plays like You Can't Take It With You.
"Those were good days in the theater," he said, rising from the couch where he and Kate were enjoying a cocktail.
"Perhaps," Kate answered, putting down her glass, "but I can't help feeling that the Greeks wrote great plays because they got the characters on and off the stage without the aid of bells."
"You get the door," Reed said. "I'll get the telephone."
He walked down the passage to his study and lifted the receiver. "Hello," he said, wishing he had thought to bring his martini with him.
"This is Miss Tyringham of the Theban," a woman's cultured voice greeted him on the phone. " May I please speak to Mrs. Reed Amhearst?"
"This is Mr. Amhearst of Kaufman and Hart," Reed wanted ridiculously to answer. He could hear Kate at the door. "Oh, my God!" he heard her say in astonished tones which boded no good. "Well, come in for a time anyway, and let’s talk about it."
"Can you hold on for a moment?" Reed asked. "I’ll see if she’s available."
"Thank you. I do apologize for disturbing you at this hour, but it is a matter of some importance. Mrs. Amhearst was Kate Fansler, was she not, when she was at the Theban?"
Was, is, and ever more will be, Reed happily thought. "Yes," he answered. "Hold on a moment."
He made his way back into the living room cautiously, as a cat might return to a place invaded by unknown, perhaps dangerous, beings.
He found Kate mixing herself another martini—in itself an ominous sign, since she always claimed that when Reed mixed them they were nectar, and when she mixed them they were intoxicating hair oil—while collapsed on the couch, its head in its hands, was a long-haired youth, revealing himself by his beard as male and by the fact that he rose, after a moment's hesitation, to his feet as having, in some dimly remembered era, been taught the manners of a lost world. On the run, Reed thought. Let us hope it is Kaufman and Hart, not Sophocles.
"Reed," Kate said, "may I introduce John Megareus Fansler, known as Jack to his friends.”
"Of whom he has many, I'm sure," Reed said, holding out a hand.
"That," Kate said, "is Philip Barry."
"A nephew?" Reed asked. "Related to that other nephew, Leo? I don’t believe we've met."
"You haven't," Kate said. "Jack did not appear at that massive family reception given by the Fanslers for us newlyweds. Clever him."
Jack smiled. "Leo told me it was pretty hairy," he said, "except for the food. Ted, who is only twelve, never notices anything but food. My brothers."
"Will you have a drink?" Reed asked, bending over the martini pitcher. "Beer, perhaps? Sherry?"
Jack shook his head. "I don’t drink," he said. "I don’t want anything."
"I always forget that your generation doesn't drink," Reed said. "Nor," he added, rising from mixing his martini, "should my generation. I've forgotten the formidable lady on the phone, asking for Kate Fansler that was. She has probably decided you no longer are, and has gone away."
But, when Kate picked up the receiver, Miss Tyringham was still there. Kate apologized.
"It is I who should apologize for disturbing you at this hour," Miss Tyringham said. "I'm calling at the suggestion of Julia Stratemayer. Did Mr. Amhearst tell you this is Miss Tyringham, headmistress of the Theban?"
At the name the Theban there rushed through Kate's mind, instantaneously as is supposed to happen when one is drowning, a whole series of recollections:
singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" at the opening assembly, the elevators in which one was not supposed to talk, profound discussions of sex in the john, the line in the cafeteria, persuading her parents not to send her away to boarding school. "I don’t believe," Miss Tyringham continued, "that we have met."
"No," Kate said. "But I gather from Julia Stratemayer that you are all coping, in these difficult times."
"We try, but it isn't easy. One never knows what will turn up, all the girls in pants, or in sandals, or barefoot, or wanting to close the school because of the war. We try to move with events, which come not singly but in battalions. Julia is doing a wonderful job on the revised curriculum."
"So I hear," Kate said. She wondered where the conversation could possibly be leading. Miss Tyringham, though she had been twenty years in the school, had come after Kate's graduation. She had the reputation of being a first-rate head, but Kate, apart from an idle glance at the alumnae bulletin, a willing response to alumnae fund-raising pleas, and delightful conversations about the Theban with her friend and classmate Julia Stratemayer, thought of her school as in another world.
"Has Julia perhaps anticipated my call and told you all about it?"
"No. All about what?"
"We are in a jam," Miss Tyringham said. "One of the curriculum changes already instituted is that which allows the seniors to spend their final semester in small seminars on subjects of their own choice. All their requirements have been fulfilled, and we are trying to prevent the final semester from being anticlimactic, particularly since that semester's work does not count for college admissions. Are you still there?"
"Still here," Kate said. "I remember about the last semester, though of course in my day one pretended to be working while not."
"Yes. No one pretends anything any more, which I suppose is a good thing, though I can't help sometimes feeling that the constant expression of emotion in itself becomes the cause of the emotion which is expressed. But that is neither here nor there. One of the senior seminars is a study, with all possible modern ramifications, of the Antigone of Sophocles."
"Well," Kate said, "that sounds properly scholarly and irrelevant."
"Only at first blush. Antigone stands, you see, for expressions of love versus tyranny, for actions of a woman against a male-dominated world, for the battles of youth against age. I understand that George Eliot was particularly intrigued with the Antigone, which is perhaps what suggested you to Julia Stratemayer."
"I'm delighted to be brought to mind by the thought of George Eliot," Kate said, "but I'm afraid I don’t altogether...”
"Of course you don't; I'm being frightfully long-winded. Mrs. Johnson, who was to have done the seminar, has slipped a disc. She must be flat on her back and in traction for months. The new semester, of course, begins next week. Julia, knowing how desperately we needed someone frightfully exciting to take over the seminar, suggested ..."
"But Miss Tyringham," Kate interrupted. "I’m on leave this year."
"Exactly, my dear. We thought—rather we hoped—that therefore you would have the time. The girls are really very keen, but they do require a teacher who is not only experienced in the running of seminars but also, as they would say, 'with it.' Unfortunately most classicists, while terribly sound on the study of Greek,
do not always appreciate the modern ramifications in quite the way we might hope. Mrs. Amhearst, we are in desperate need of help, and appeal to your charity and kindness. Of course we will pay, but I realize ..."
"May I have a little time to think about it?" Kate asked. "You see, I'm supposed to be working on a book."
"Oh, I know you're frightfully busy and will have to squeeze us in. I can't express how grateful we would be. Now, don't say anything yet. I'll ask Mrs. Johnson to send you her reading list; perhaps you would like to talk to her. I'll give you a day or two to decide. Shall I call you in a few days, Mrs. Amhearst?"
"All right. Miss Tyringham, I hope you don't mind, but professionally, and you do want a professional I take it, I use the name Kate Fansler. Miss Fansler, if the students still call their teachers by their last names."
"Good for you. Of course, my dear. One wants to be correct socially, but no one knows better than the head of a girls' school how confusing this continual change of names can be, particularly in these days of frequent divorce and remarriage. Goodbye for now, Miss Fansler, and I hope, indeed I trust, that you will come to our aid in this emergency."
Kate's goodbye echoed faintly over the already disconnected line. Swearing, she quickly dialed Julia Stratemayer's number. "Julia," Kate said, when she had
got her friend on the telephone, "I have just heard from Miss Tyringham, and if I were not at the moment oc-6 cupied with a troubled nephew, I would come over and wring your neck."
"Listen, Kate," Julia said, "I know how you feel, but I honestly think you’ll find these seniors fascinating, and anyway we're desperate."
"The Antigone, Julia, I ask you. I haven't thought about Greek since the Theban."
"Never mind Greek, love; read the play with the aid of Jebb. Virginia Woolf thought there hadn't been a real woman character between Antigone and her own Mrs. Ramsay. And George Eliot ..."
"I will not discuss George Eliot without another drink. And then there's Jack. Can we," Kate frantically concluded, "thrash this out tomorrow?"
From the Paperback edition.
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The Theban Mysteries is filled with sparkling, witty dialogue and numerous literary allusions. The characters are a lot of fun; I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Kate and Reed. The parallels the author drew between the play Antigone, the Vietnam War and the lives of the students at The Theban was interesting, too. But the ultimate resolution of the mystery felt flat; it felt very anticlimactic. Still, a fun read on a rainy afternoon.