I actually had the chance once to meet and converse with Carolyn Heilbrun, the Columbia University English professor who, from the 1960s through the early 2000s, penned 14 mysteries under the pseudonym Amanda Cross. All of those novels starred a woman who wasn’t so very different from her creator: Kate Fansler, a literature professor at a prominent New York university who “is called upon to solve mysteries set in an academic context, usually involving the murder of a professor or student.”
Unfortunately, at the time--this would have been in the 1980s--I barely knew who Heilbrun was. As a founding member of Friends of Mystery, a Portland, Oregon-based crime-fiction appreciation society, I’d agreed to help organize a small convention in that city to celebrate the genre. By some legerdemain, we managed to attract several noteworthy crime-fictionists as speakers, including Joseph Hansen (author of the Dave Brandstetter private-eye tales), Richard Hoyt (then producing his yarns about soft-boiled Seattle P.I. John Denson), and Heilbrun. It was my job to publicize this event and take part in an onstage presentation with Hoyt, who I’d gotten to know quite well when he was my journalism professor in college. Another volunteer had charge of Heilbrun, though I did my best to welcome her to our gathering and later listen attentively to her talk. She seemed a formidable woman, confident in her skin as well as with her areas of expertise (which included author Virginia Woolf and “women’s issues”). Years later, in 2003, when I heard that she’d committed suicide at age 77, I thought how appropriate it was that this longtime professor should have ended her life on her own terms. As Heilbrun reportedly told her son, she felt her life was “completed.”
Only long after that convention did I read any of Heilbrun/Cross’ novels, among them In the Last Analysis (1964), which introduced Fansler and was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. The novel’s plot is described by this online review: “One of Kate’s former students [Janet Harrison] asks for a referral to a good psychiatrist. When the student is found murdered on the couch of the psychiatrist, Kate’s close friend Emanuel Bauer, suspicion falls on Emanuel, on his wife, and even on Kate herself.” The amateur sleuth ultimately uses Freudian analysis to solve the crime.
That scene the author offers of Ms. Harrison stabbed to death on the shrink’s couch wound up inspiring artist Robert K. Abbett to create the paperback cover of In the Last Analysis that’s shown above, on the left. It was published in 1966 by Avon.
Now train your eyes on the book immediately to the right of Cross’. It shows the front from Girl on a Couch, by Manning (Lee) Stokes, a prolific American writer who produced novels under several noms de plume and in a variety of genres, including spy fiction, detective fiction, Western fiction, science fiction, and adult fiction. It’s from that final category that Girl on a Couch (Softcover Library, 1966) comes. You can tell immediately, because of the cover teaser line: “Her analyst tried to cure Gay Horton, but fell victim to her instead … for she was a woman both disturbed and extremely disturbing.” Further, the back-jacket copy from the 1961 Beacon edition of this book (shown on the left, with cover art by Al Rossi) provides a deliberately titillating story synopsis:
What was wrong with young and wondrously attractive Gay Horton? It wasn’t just that she had no morals, no restraint. The queer thing was that night after night she haunted low dives, tenement houses, cheap bars, looking for the grimiest, worst-mannered, most-uncouth men she could find. Obviously Gay was sick. But her voluptuous beauty tempted even Paul Gray, the psychiatrist trying to help her. When Gay threw herself at him, he yielded--leaving his own sweetheart, pretty Pat Morley, to fall victim to the unnatural needs of other women. As for Gay, she pushed Paul still further into the pit. He found himself confronted by aberration more revolting than the love-mania with which she had first come to him …All of that may sound pretty cheesy nowadays, but during the mid-20th-century, there was a substantial market for such soft-porn fiction--stories about lustful female nymphomaniacs, wife swappers, group gropes, shameless secretaries, naughty nurses, sex-crazed students, and of course licentious lesbians. Girl on a Couch might be one of the tamer works among that illicit breed.
Was Gay deliberately trying to punish herself by squandering her blonde beauty on low, vice-ridden brutes? Did her guilt concern her relations with a member of her own family …?
Sensitive, tender, yet almost frightening in its implications, the story of Gay Horton explores the therapist’s world … and the dark places of a woman’s soul.
I’m very fond of this particular cover of Stokes’ novel, with its illustration of a shapely, deep-cleavaged Gay Horton, reclining on her psychiatrist’s furniture. It’s easy to see how the conservatively attired Paul Gray might be seduced by her presence. I wish I was also able to see some signature on the artwork, but I don’t. Nor do I find any credit for this book front in the usual online sources.
READ MORE: “The Professor and the Mystery Writer,” by Paula Span (The Washington Post).