The latest case for Kate Fansler (The Puzzled Heart, 1997, etc.) has a big fat surprise: Estelle “Woody” Woodhaven, a real live licensed p.i., is the narrator, with Fansler shunted to the role of mentor. Fat is more than a feminist issue to Woody; it’s her only issue, recurring like hiccups in every conversation. Naturally, she’s intimidated at the thought of consulting svelte, erudite Kate, whom her friend Claire Wiseman assured her could help Woody understand the byzantine world of Clifton College, a small school with a big problem: the murder of its English department’s chair. And Kate does help her understand—sort of—why Charles Haycock’s obsession with the Victorian poet Tennyson could cause him to persecute his more modern junior colleagues, why modernist Antonia Lansbury would fight back by staging a production of Virginia Woolf’s Freshwater, why medievalist James Petrillo would try to reconcile bitter enemies, why writing instructor Kevin Oakwood would support Haycock’s bid to be chair in spite of their mutual antipathy, and why anyone would want to stay in such a snakepit to begin with. Woody may be the shamus here, but Kate’s the real sleuth. Owing more to Freud than Holmes, she listens and listens and then just sees the light, using intuition in place of deduction to crack the case.
Cross’s plot may be clueless, but her characters aren’t. With insight and wit as wide as her waistline, Woody would be a worthy protagonist, if Kate could just scoot over and leave her some room.