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Gone But Not Forgotten: Emma Lathen

by John Charles

*This article originally appeared in the March issue of RA News. Subscribe to RA News or any of our other newsletters. *

Long before Occupy Wall Street put America's financial epicenter in the news, author Emma Lathen was using the foibles and follies of the country's business capital as a rich source of inspiration for a series of highly entertaining mysteries. From 1961 to 1997, Lathen, the pseudonym for Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart, wrote 24 cleverly constructed detective stories featuring banker (and crack amateur sleuth) John Putnam Thatcher. By following the money in each of these books, Thatcher is not only able to restore order to the balance sheets at his bank but also help the police catch more than one calculating killer.

Latsis and Henissart first met in college. When they discovered they shared a love of traditional mysteries and had run out of good authors to read, the two decided to collaborate on a book. Since Latsis had a degree in economics and Henissart studied law, setting their book in the world of business simply made good sense. The two chose to make their sleuth a banker because, in their words, "there is nothing on God's earth a banker can't get into."

Readers got their first taste of John Putnam Thatcher, a senior vice-president at Sloan Guaranty Trust in New York City, with the publication of Banking on Death in 1961. Over the course of the next four decades, Thatcher finds himself entangled in a number of murder investigations primarily because Sloan has some financial interest in the case. Each book in the Thatcher series allows Lathen to explore a different type of business or industry. Accounting for Murder takes place in a company that manufactures adding machines. Murder Against the Grain is set during the 1960s negotiations by the Soviets for American wheat. Green Grow the Dollars revolves around the dispute over a new and genetically improved tomato while Right on the Money borrows its plot from the deregulation of the American airline industry during the late 1980s.

Based on their subject matter, readers who have never tried a Thatcher mystery might think these books would be as dull as a copy of yesterday's Wall Street Journal, but nothing could be more incorrect. Lathen infuses her writing with a deliciously dry sense of wit that even extends to the books' chapter headings. For example, in Brewing Up a Storm, which centers around a dispute between a company that has developed a nonalcoholic version of their popular beer and a group of concerned citizens who believe it will lead to premature alcohol abuse, chapters are given such titles as "Another Round," "On Tap," and "In a Ferment."

"...Readers who have never tried a Thatcher mystery might think these books would be dull as a copy of yesterday's Wall Street Journal, but nothing could be more incorrect."

In addition to the writing itself, Thatcher himself and a quirky cast of secondary characters inject another layer of humor as readers get to know the patrician banker and his fellow Sloan employees. Thatcher's introspection offers wry commentary on the world around him that adds depth to the background of the stories as well as sprinkling clues and the inside scoop on his puzzle-solving process. Everett Gabler is a slave to his fussy stomach; bon vivant and confirmed bachelor Charlie Trinkam's charm with the ladies frequently produces a much needed nugget of information; investment broker Tom Robichaux seems to get married and divorced as frequently as GE issues dividends. Then there is Thatcher's no-nonsense and indispensable secretary Miss Corsa, who wishes her boss would spend more time on bank business and less on playing Sherlock Holmes.

Lathen wrote traditional mysteries in the style and spirit of those turned out by American and British authors in the 1930s and 1940s during the Golden Age of detective fiction, which is one reason why she earned the sobriquet the "Agatha Christie of Wall Street." The Thatcher novels encouragereaders to play along with the curious banker as he uses his business acumen and knowledge of human behavior to solve murders. As an added bonus, since the focus in the story is always on the puzzle and the characters don't change or develop through the series, readers can really start with any title in the series and not feel like they are lost.

In addition to the two dozen Thatcher mysteries, Lathen also wrote 8 mysteries from 1968 to 1984 featuring U.S. Congressman Ben Safford. Like Lathen’s Thatcher mysteries, the Ben Safford books are also solidly plotted, traditionally crafted tales of detection. Lathen provides just enough characterization for Safford, his Washington, D.C. staff, and family back in Ohio to engage the reader’s interest without pulling the focus of the story away from the murder itself, and the Safford books are expertly seasoned with the same delightfully dry sense of wit found in the Thatcher mysteries. If the world of business drives the Thatcher books, politics is the literary raison d'etre for Lathen's Safford novels. In The Attending Physician, Safford investigates Medicaid fraud. Unexpected Developments features a plot based on collusion between a big defense contractor and the Department of Defense over a new weapon. Epitaph for a Lobbyist has Safford tangled up in a murder connected to a lobbyist. Despite the fact that the Safford mysteries were written more than three decades ago, the subjects -- political bribery, problems with Medicaid, Supreme Court shenanigans, and bureaucratic battles over budgets -- still resonate with readers today.

Over the course of their career, Latsis and Henissart wrote 32 mysteries, but eventually readers will find themselves sadly finishing their last Thatcher or Safford book. Now where can a die-hard Lathen addict turn to find that same hit of mystery reading pleasure? Given that Lathen is frequently literary-linked to Agatha Christie, suggesting her books to a fan of Lathen is certainly a good potential merger. Like Christie, Lathen focuses on delivering a cleverly crafted puzzle that tests a reader’s own sleuthing mettle. Lathen also has a similar method of characterization to Christie by giving readers just enough details about individual characters to firmly fix them in the reader’s mind without overwhelming a mystery reader with tons of extraneous data about character’s personal lives. Christie’s own subtle sense of wit is often overlooked by her critics, but Lathen readers will instantly recognize and appreciate her understated style of humor. British mystery writer Sarah Caudwell is another possible match for Lathen readers. A barrister in the real world, Caudwell wrote four mysteries starring Oxford don and professor of medieval law Hilary Tamar finds himself or herself (readers are never exactly certain as to Tamar’s gender) dragged into a number of murder investigations by a group of his former students, who are all now barristers themselves. Wills, estates, tax planning, and financial investments gone awry provide plenty of financial motives for murder in Caudwell’s books, and Lathen readers will not only appreciate Caudwell’s equally quirky cast of characters, but also her deliciously dry and very distinctive sense of wit.

Readers who relish traditional mysteries with smartly executed plots, an entertaining cast of characters, and a smattering of fascinating tidbits about various business and political topics will discover Lathen's books have all this and more, making them the literary equivalent of money in the bank.

John Charles is an Adult Services Librarian for the Scottsdale, AZ Public Library. In addition to reviewing for Library Journal and Booklist, Charles is the co-author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Mystery 2nd Ed. (ALA, 2012), The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Ultimate Reading List (Alpha Books, 2007), and Romance Today: An A to Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance Writers (Greenwood, 2006).