Wall Street Mysteries by Emma Lathen - Essay
"Right on the Money: Emma Lathen's Mysteries" by Jim Huang
My fantasy right now is that Emma Lathen is named to head the Federal
Reserve. Doesn't "irrational exuberance" sound more like Lathen than
Greenspan? Is there anyone who understands--and can explain--American
business as well as she can? Wouldn't our monetary policy make more sense
with Lathen in charge?
Or maybe I should be wishing for a Congressional representative as earnest
and decent as her sleuth Ben Safford in the novels published under the pen
name R.B. Dominic. You'd think that his take on fundraising and consorting
with lobbyists (described over 20 years ago in Epitaph for a Lobbyist) would
be dated, but it's in fact remarkably relevant to today's election process.
Of course, the current fad for term limits and/or just booting out the
incumbents would long ago have doomed Ohio Democrat Safford to retirement.
Fortunately, in mystery fiction, there are no term limits, and we have Emma
Lathen and R.B. Dominic's terrific body of work to enjoy forever.
Emma Lathen and R.B. Dominic are both pseudonyms of Mary Jane Latsis, an
economist, and Martha Henissart, a lawyer. Their remarkable collaboration
began with 1961's Banking on Death, under the Lathen pseudonym, and continued through Shark Out of Water, the 24th mystery to feature Wall Street banker John Putnam Thatcher, which was published in 1997. (Mary Jane Latsis died in 1997 leaving one unfinished Thatcher novel which will likely be
completed by Henissart.) Along the way, they also published seven novels
under the Dominic name, from 1968 to 1984, all featuring the Ohio
congressman. I'm a little more fond of the Lathens than the Dominics, but
both series are delightful treasures.
Comparisons to Jane Austen are thrown around all too frequently, but Emma
Lathen's work clearly deserves to be regarded in Austen's light. Lathen's
prose is pointed and witty, full of droll observations about the workings of
business. A potential client for Thatcher's Sloan Guaranty Trust is described
as "an exceedingly dubious operation that purported to see fortunes to be
made in secondary oil recovery despite their almost endearing lack of
capital." Another proposal draws this evaluation: "While we are interested in
your model for estimating supply, we at the Sloan still feel that demand
plays a part in price changes." Lathen also demonstrates a sure understanding
of how things work: after being appointed to a committee, a colleague asks
Thatcher what they're supposed to do. Thatcher replies: "We're not supposed
to do anything. We wait for something to happen. Then everybody blames us.
That keeps the principals in the clear."
The immediate concerns of business may change from day to day, but its
fundamental workings do not. As a result, Lathen's work has a surprisingly
timeless quality. Death Shall Overcome--among Lathen's finest books--was
published in 1966. The novel follows the first application by a black man for
a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Today, that question is settled, but
the problems, the personalities, and the tactics that Latsis and Henissart
described more than 30 years ago are still with us today.
Partisans of the hardboiled novel like to think of that sub-genre as the
uniquely American form of crime fiction, but I think that overlooks Lathen's
contribution. After all, what could be more American than fiction that
celebrates this country's greatest institutions (a banking system and a
system of government that are the envy of the world) and its most enduring
values (capitalism and democracy). At a time when cynicism runs rampant, Emma
Lathen's work offers a refreshing reminder of the positive (and even
progressive) side of the way America works. Latsis and Henissart's grace and
humor ensure that their work will endure.
Jim Huang is the editor of The Drood Review of Mystery and a mystery
bookseller. He is also currently serving as president of the Independent
Mystery Booksellers Association.
A SELECTED EMMA LATHEN READING LIST
Accounting for Murder, 1964
Right on the Money, 1993
Brewing Up a Storm, 1996
A Shark Out of Water, 1997