What's the Story? Reading Joanne Dobson's Cold and Pure and Very Dead

©2002 L.Timmel Duchamp

WARNING: Spoilers galore.

Women have been indulging in the pleasures of reading and creating crime fiction for more than a century. Is it any surprise, then, that over the last two decades, in the wake of the second wave of feminism, a wild, proliferating influx of women writers into the field has reshaped, expanded, and enlivened the tropes and conventions of a genre previously dominated by men? In her study of feminism and the crime novel, Sally R. Munt notes that during the late 1970s and the 1980s white women Ph.D.s in particular "gained ascendancy" in the genre. And she observes that some of these writers adapted the conventions of the male academic sleuth to accommodate female academic sleuths as well as translated the traditional country-house murder to the college campus.1

The overtly feminist "Amanda Cross" (a nom de plume of Professor Carolyn Heilbrun) stands as a chief pioneer among such writers. For two decades now her novels have not only given us a glimpse of what life in the English Department of a fictional equivalent of Columbia University must be like for women faculty, but have also frequently incorporated the gender politics of literary criticism and academic affairs into the circumstances of those novels' crimes. To be sure, several early Amanda Cross novels accommodated a woman protagonist and a feminist point of view with stiffness and awkwardness. But from the vantage of 2002, their stiffness now appears to be an inevitable consequence of the writer's forging a new subgeneric form from an old one with the deliberate intention of challenging the ideologically conservative subtext of familiar genre conventions that carry the massy weight and comfort of tradition. Cross's Kate Fansler, who is not only a female academic sleuth solving crimes involving literary puzzles and academic politics, but also (for the reader) an inadvertent social critic with a feminist perspective, strained the form to its early 1980s limits. Twenty years ago we were not, after all, used to thinking of women as rational upholders of The System-- which is, of course, the traditional role of the detective. Cross's Fansler-- nontraditional insofar as she fills a role traditionally reserved to males--attempts to combine the role of rational upholder of The System with feminism. If it is easy in 2002 to see the combination as in no way surprising, that certainly wasn't so in 1980. But then the options for depicting female academic sleuths have expanded considerably over the last two decades.

For all that Amanda Cross blazed a new trail for feminist readers and writers, I must agree with Munt when she emphasizes the "bourgeois roots" and "liberal" (as opposed to "socialist") feminism of Cross's perspective. Kate Fansler, one could argue, is a female, late 20th-century North American version of Lord Peter Wimsey (although she is in no way the diva that he is). She comes from a wealthy family and therefore looks out upon the world with eyes that are not only feminist, but upper-class, and constructs her moral universe accordingly. And so, Munt concludes:

[T]he Amanda Cross books, often imitating in style and political intention the Golden Age writers, support many of the important aims of feminism. But despite the recent developments towards a more articulate and cohesive feminism, they continue to contextualize these aims within a universalizing humanism.(39)

Joanne Dobson's academic female sleuth comes from another generation and world altogether. Like most feminists of her generation, Professor Karen Pelletier is wary of any claim to universality, and for her as for most people with a working-class background, the humanist attitude is a foreign country beyond her means to visit. Nasty battles of gender politics frequently erupt in Karen Pelletier's world just as they have always done in Kate Fansler's academic milieu, but the former stands on firmer, steadier, and far less lonely ground than the latter when she battles the sometimes dangerous outrages of sexist offenses against women. Sexism may still reside in the academy (and still dominate narrative conventions of crime fiction), but in the world Dobson depicts something important has changed. Something concrete. One might sum it up by saying, "woman, you are not alone in the commonplace, day-to-day struggle." This is not to say that Karen Pelletier's world offers us the spectacle of sisterhood triumphant. Rather, we see that she is embedded in and supported by a set of basic values that many of the people around her share. Such moral and ethical grounding not only grants her a moral certainty and ease with her feminist perspective that was denied to her fictional feminist predecessors, but provides her with a discursive space in which she can express ideas and ask questions without first having to build anew from scratch with every interlocutor a superstructure defending assumptions likely to be misunderstood or dismissed.

Over the course of the first three novels in the series, protagonist and narrator Karen Pelletier grows increasingly professionally confident in her position of (untenured) Assistant Professor and comfortable in her network of friends and colleagues. This social and professional development provides a necessary backdrop to the particular story that Cold and Pure and Very Dead-- the fourth in the series-- tells.2 While gender politics lies at the heart of the novel's literary and murder mystery, it is a gender politics deeply inflected with issues of class. As someone who has fought and struggled her way out of the working class to become a professor at a prestigious private college, the narrator enjoys the advantage of being able to read situations that would likely baffle her colleagues from a more privileged background. When upon the breakdown of the department's fax machine the difficult and often infuriating departmental secretary admits that she hasn't had the machine serviced for months and has spent many hours trying to maintain it herself because the man the company has assigned to the college is abusive, Karen, desperate to get the last page of an incoming fax, makes a no-sweat phone call to the company and-- using her professional position as well as her understanding of the operations of class-- arranges for another service person to replace the abusive one. However difficult and snarky Monica might be to the academics she works for, the secretary could never have resolved the situation as quickly and easily as Karen does. Karen understands this and uses her understanding to negotiate to her own advantage.
In another scene subtly illuminating how class inflects gender issues, Karen's past not only informs her understanding of the situation, but offers a younger woman a narrative of hope. Sophie Warzek, Karen's working-class protégé, confides her sense of being trapped in a life story she doesn't want to be living. "I can do more for the world...than...bake...muffins. But that's all life seems to hold in store for me"(109). In response, Karen tells Sophie the story of how as a broke, teenaged mother with an abusive husband she found her way out of hell (alone). "[Y]ou can get out of the box," she tells Sophie. "[W]e just have to figure out how"(110).3 It is the ease and expansive perspective with which the narrator addresses class- and gender-constrained situations that once would have been regarded as difficult if not impossible to overcome that particularly strike me about this female academic sleuth. Although Karen Pelletier occasionally feels out of place in the academy, it is not because she is a woman-- or even a feminist. Without question, in Dobson's Enfield College, we've come a long way from Cross's "large metropolitan university."

Dobson fairly flings down the gauntlet at the elitist values of traditional college English Departments in the novel's first scene. Marty Katz, The New York Times reporter interviewing Karen, is patently bored with the subject of the interview, viz., the new research center Karen has been appointed to direct. Preparing to depart, he shoots a last, "throwaway" question at her: "So, Professor Pelletier, what do you think is the best [anglophone] novel of the twentieth century?"(1)  Karen is a scholar of nineteenth century women's literature. The question annoys her both for its irrelevance to the subject of the interview and for its underlying assumptions about "best." She knows that as a professor at a prestigious institution she is expected to uphold the values of the discipline. "Toni Morrison's Beloved was the obvious choice"(2) the narrator tells us. And then she thinks of the prizewinning hyper-masculine novel of Enfield's newest writer-in-residence, Jake Fenton-- "just the testosterone-driven adventure story that always got defined as `great literature'"(2). The very thought pushes her over the top. Irritated and wanting to be provocative, Karen replies that Oblivion Falls, a 1950s "page-turner" full of "haunted characters" and steamy sex scenes "was the best novel of the century." The reporter says, "I was an English major at Brown, but I never heard of it. How good can it be?"(3)  Oblivion Falls, Dobson tells us in the acknowledgments, is modeled on Grace Metalious's blockbuster Peyton Place. By explicitly mentioning Toni Morrison's masterpiece and the work of a living (though not for long) white male as candidates for author of the century's best anglophone novel, Dobson frames the issue as going beyond the dominance of the canon by "dead white males."

The novel's epigraph, "Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead," taken from Sinclair Lewis's "The American Fear of Literature" and echoed in the book's title, as well as the citation of Jane Tompkins's "critical question, `but is it any good?'" in the acknowledgments, cues the reader to expect that the crime(s) the narrator will face (and of course solve) will turn on the issue of how and by whom "(good) literature" is defined. I take special pleasure in Dobson's pointed use of popular genre fiction to explore a "critical question" usually pursued in the arena of high theory. In this sense, the novel seems to be murmuring, just below its surface, that the question is not merely a matter of high (and dry) theory, but hinges on material life-- and maybe even death.

Soon after the appearance of Katz's article quoting Karen's discussion "problematizing" the "notion of an irreconcilable split between popular culture and what used to be known as `high culture'"(14), a feminist-press edition of Oblivion Falls makes it onto the New York Times bestseller list, reporter Marty Katz is murdered, and Mildred Deakin, the long-vanished author of Oblivion Falls (now known as Mrs. Finch), is arrested for his murder. The narrator feels responsible. She has "outed" a reclusive goat farmer as the novel's author, and the reporter was shot on Finch property with the Finches's gun. Karen Pelletier thus decides to once again go a-sleuthing.

As is usual with this sleuth, the murder is not all that she investigates. A desire to discover why Mildred Deakin exchanged literary celebrity in Manhattan for "the obscurity of the rural hinterlands"(73) motivates her as much as her sense of responsibility for the murder does. Rereading Oblivion Falls, she concludes "The novel wasn't half bad"(73). Perhaps more importantly, she notes that "Mildred Deakin's fictional Satan Mills was all too familiar to me, reminding me vividly of Lowell, and the hard life and hard people of my own childhood and youth"(74). Karen's origins lie in Lowell, where her mother and sister still live-- and where she herself no longer feels comfortable even visiting.

In her reading of Oblivion Falls, Karen identifies with Sara, the working-class teenaged protagonist who in the end dies of an abortion. Interestingly, although Deakin's novel is an autobiographical roman a clef, the protagonist's character is not based on the author herself (as is usual with first novels), but on the life story of her friend, Lorraine. Deakin casts herself in the novel as Cookie, the naive daughter of an English professor, who is utterly clueless about how class attitudes impact her friendship with Sara as well as Sara's (and her own) life. Outrage at Lorraine's death alone drives Mildred Deakin to write Oblivion Falls-- not the wish to be a writer, which is often the force driving young people to write their first novels. When the young Mildred Deakin has told the story she needs to tell, she has nothing left to say. The glamorous literary life and celebrity she has won prove merely a pain in the butt from which she eventually flees. Rejecting the literary world and the writing life, she chooses "the immanence of spirit in the natural world"(121). Which is to say, she bakes and cleans; she harvests berries and makes jam; she raises goats.

Karen solves the literary mystery of why Deakin ran away and buried herself in obscurity fairly early in the novel. But the crime mystery, thickening with the murder of the stridently virile novelist Jake Fenton, the illegitimate child Deakin gave up for adoption at birth, impels her to uncover the real story on which Deakin modeled Oblivion Falls. Having identified the novel as a roman a clef, Karen, for all her expertise as a literary scholar, fails to remember that narratives told in fiction are always tailored to contemporary conventions rather than being modeled on the actual stories of "real life." In 1950s fiction, only "bad" girls and women get pregnant out of wedlock, and those who dare attempt to escape their pregnancies through abortion must die in the act. In 1950s America, however, most women who had illegal abortions survived. In the "real life" story on which Deakin based her novel, Lorraine did not die of an abortion, but was murdered several months later. Encountering Karen's unquestioned assumption that Lorraine, the person on whom she based the novel's Sara, died in an abortion, Deakin says, "That's your problem, you professors. Always mistaking literature for life!"(278)  Dobson thus underscores at the expense of her protagonist how narrative conventions often differ from the actual facts of people's lives.

But Dobson does not allow the reader to take the power of narrative convention to determine a story's outcome as a simple dichotomy separating fiction from the material facts of reality. Her novel insists that the relationship between convention and life story is a good deal more complex than that. Deakin tells the narrator how when forty years earlier she went to the police to report Lorraine's murder and urged them to question the man she had good reason to believe killed her friend, the police dismissed her as "a hysterical girl"(279) and her father had her committed to a mental hospital. Lorraine's death was ruled a suicide. Case closed-- as the official story went. The real story was not plausible to the police or Mildred's father. In fact, the conventions of plausibility rule the narrative possibilities of real life just as powerfully as they rule the narrative possibilities of fiction.4 Who in a small elite college town of the 1950s would believe a young girl's uncorroborated accusation against an "upstanding, respectable" professor alleging seduction and murder of a teenaged townie? Dobson marks the difference between then and now very clearly. Forty years later, the narrative conventions ruling both fiction and reality have changed. No one hearing Mildred Deakin's story doubts her for a second. Not the narrator, not the police (although granted, Deakin tells the story only after Karen has faced down the killer for his other murders). If Dobson's readers do, it is only because readers of mysteries are trained to be hyper-suspicious-- and not because they find the story less than plausible.

Significantly, Karen's colleague, Ralph Waldo Emerson Brooke, whose every conversation boasts personal anecdotes about Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and whose special expertise is US literature of the 1950s, is the murderer. He is a buddy of the English department's septuagenarian chair and is characterized early in the novel as "the old-style sexist type of academic who'd die rather than look at a popular woman's novel like Oblivion Falls"(27). His appointment to the endowed Paul O. Palaver Chair of Literary Studies (aka "The Cadaver Chair") "had torn the department into opposing factions that might well never reunite." The narrator's interlocutor, historian George Gilmore, remarks, "I'm amazed the department's feminist mafia let a canonist like Brooke get through"(28). Brooke is less a full-fleshed character than an icon meant to evoke traits and attitudes that feminist academics love to hate. Just as the subgenre of academic thrillers supports the improbable convention of an amateur sleuth's inadvertent entanglement with murder investigations once or twice a year, so the villains of mysteries may be cardboard characters allowed to stand in for a multitude of sins in the sleuth's moral universe.

In the course of Karen's showdown with the murderer, he says of his third victim, Jake Fenton, "A fine strong virile writer. A true loss to the literary world"(255). Of Karen's projected death, he says, "And too bad about you. You'll be a loss, too... You're really quite decorative, you know"(256). But of Deakin, whom he intended to kill but failed to do so, he says, "and without yet another no-talent lady writer the world would have been a better place"(256). The narrator describes her highly emotional response to these taunts from the killer aiming a gun at her:

A powerful rage surged through my fingertips. Women Studies 101, lesson number two, the misogynist trivialization of the female literary tradition! Professor Brooke had gone too far. His gun terrified me, but his smug condescension infuriated me even more.(257)

The mischievous feminist reader might well be tempted to imagine adding Professor Brooke's method to those educed by Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women's Writing. And yet elsewhere in the novel Dobson does not encourage the reader to attribute the scantness of scholarly attention to Oblivion Falls solely to misogyny. "Falling in some ambiguous crevasse between the scholarly categories of `literature' and 'popular culture,' " the narrator writes, "Oblivion Falls and its author had attracted precious little academic attention."

Dobson hints that it might take the expertise of a historian to understand the significance of popular literature combined with the expertise of a literary scholar to explicate its value when she puts a materialist historical explanation for why Oblivion Falls was the first blockbuster novel of its kind in the mouth of George Gilmore, who spent ten years of his life writing the history of the book in America(22-23). Gilmore tells Karen that when Katz had interviewed him about "1950s book culture," he said that the "conservative fifties were the cradle of both the counterculture and the postmodern"(98). In the novel's (fictive) reality, Oblivion Falls constitutes an artifact of the "conservative fifties." By providing readers with excerpts from Oblivion Falls, the setting of which was modeled on another private college, Stallmouth (where Mildred Deakin's father was an English professor), Dobson invites readers to compare the vast (feminist) difference between Stallmouth in the fifties and Endfield in the nineties (and to note that class relations between "town and gown" have not changed much). The academy, we see, is changing. Ralph Waldo Emerson Brooke may write off Deakin as a "no-talent lady writer," but a professor at Skidmore College, Sean Small, is studying Oblivion Falls and has plans to write Deakin's biography. Significantly, Dobson depicts all the reactionary professors fighting the influence of feminism and their discipline's rising interest in popular culture as aged diehards nearing death (if not retirement). By offering us novel excerpts depicting a time preceding the second wave of feminism, when the canon held unquestioned sway over the discipline, Dobson shows us a story that we can easily read as her novel's subtext.

Beyond using "excerpts" from Oblivion Falls to paint a picture of the benighted situation of women vis-a-vis the academy of the "conservative fifties," Dobson actually places the fictional Deakin's novel within the feminist genealogy of which Dobson's own novel, Cold and Pure and Very Dead, is a descendant-- thereby creating-- metafictionally-- a precursor text for her own novel. When Karen meets with Deakin-researcher Small, she hands him a phony line for making him believe that her interest in Deakin is that of a scholar rather than that of a detective. "My thesis," she says with admirable glibness, "is that the female subject position in fifties popular fiction transitions hegemonic domestic gender constructions intertextually, prefiguring feminist resistance narratives, particularly in the realm of female sexuality"(105). To many readers, this sentence will look like the "gobbledeygook" high theorists are notoriously accused of spouting. The narrator certainly seems to wink at the reader when she refers to being hard-put to come up with more jargon than that for her interlocutor. And yet what fascinates about this sentence-- and what made me laugh out loud when I realized it-- is that the very next excerpt from Oblivion Falls-- which immediately follows this conversation with Small-- exemplifies this supposedly phony "thesis." In the excerpt, the working-class Joe tells Sara to forget about her friend Cookie and kisses her-- a move which Sara unequivocally rejects. She says of her friendship with Cookie, "We like to read the same books and talk about the same things and listen to the same music"(107). All along, Sara has avoided Joe because she wants to avoid the teen-aged marriage and sequelae that shaped her mother's life. This life story that Sara wants to avoid is the same story that Karen herself began with. Sara's story went awry because she died-- as did Lorraine, her original, who was murdered. Karen, on the other hand, found a way out of the old story and created a new one and is determined to see to it that Sophie will, too. Lorraine's niece, Lolita, is another working-class woman who refused the old story. As Sophie tells Karen after their visit with Lolita, "Now I have two good role models"(148).

To quote the (fictive!) New York Times quoting Professor Pelletier, "A best-selling novel often reflects social, political, and economic complexities of cultural matrices in ways at least as intriguing and enlightening as the most carefully wrought literary work of art"(14). If we were to expand Pelletier's "bestseller" to include genre fiction, Dobson's Cold and Pure and Very Dead might be said to prove her protagonist's point beautifully.


[1] Sally R. Munt, Murder by the Book: feminism and the crime novel, New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 33.

[2] Joanne Dobson, Cold and Pure and Very Dead, New York, Bantam, 2001.

[3] For more on how the stories we know influence our lives, see my essay "The Stories of Our Lives."

[4] Nancy K. Miller's 1981 "Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction" in Subject to Change (New York, Columbia University Press, 1988) broke new ground in showing us the particular (rather than universal) character of plausibility in fiction. She observes that "the maxims that pass for the truth of human experience and the encoding of that experience, in literature, are organizations, when they are not fantasies, of the dominant culture"(44).

April, 2002

This essay first appeared in the Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, No. 10.

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