Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Simply Troubling: The Mystery of the New Emma Lathen Editions

Emma Lathen, one of the most highly regarded writers of classic crime fiction over nearly four decades, from 1961 to 1997, was, as I have noted here before, a pseudonym for two women, Mary Jane Latsis, an agricultural economist, and Martha Henissart, a corporate attorney.  After Latsis's death in 1997, Henissart stopped writing mystery fiction, even though Emma Lathen's John Putnam Thatcher series was still quite popular. 

The popularity of the series probably peaked in the early 1980s, when in the US Lathen's Winter Olympics themed Going for the Gold received an initial print run of 17,000 copies with their American publisher, Simon & Schuster.  Lathen also reached many more readers in the US and UK in the form of paperbacks issued by Pocket and Penguin Books.  Ultimately mystery fans purchased hundred of thousands of copies of Lathen mysteries, in one form or another.

Henissart stated to the New York Times that at Latsis's death the pair had completed about 80% of another Thatcher novel, which employed the setting of the Persian Gulf War, and that she planned to finish it; but apparently she never did.  Nor did any other Thatcher novels appear (but see below).

Little seems to have been heard from Henissart in the mystery world after Latsis's death.  During much of her writing life as Emma Lathen Henissart had been preoccupied with preserving the anonymity of her name, fearing that her novels, with their pointed and satirical look at the foibles and felonies of the corporate world, might offend clients.  (Henissart worked many years for Raytheon, a major US defense contractor.) 

As far as I know Henissart and Lathen were first exposed as the women behind Emma Lathen in 1969 by Allen J. Hubin, successor for several years to the late Anthony Boucher as the crime fiction reviewer for the New York Times.  In a review of Lathen's When in Greece Hubin wrote

one of my correspondents, Jean Metz of Washington, D. C., has solved the mystery [of Emma Lathen's real identity] in the Catalogue of Copyright Entries....Emma Lathen is not one but two women, Mary J. Latis [sic] and Martha Henissart--with the first syllables of both names scrambled to make the pseudonym.

It was not for some years after this revelation by Hubin that Latsis and Henissart agreed to give interviews in their real names about the Emma Lathen books, as they did, for example, in a 1978 New York Times article,  "Business Bonanaza in Whodunit Fiction," which even included a photo of the two authors seated at a table, hashing things out over a typewriter.

In 2012 an enterprising woman with the Mount Holyoke Alumni Association (Henissart had graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1950) got in touch with Henissart and noted that the surviving half of Emma Lathen occupied her time with "travel, gardening, duplicate bridge and the duties of dog ownership."  Although Henissart "still enjoys reading mysteries," it was reported, she insisted to her interviewer that she had written "not a word" of a mystery since her writing partner's death.  She humorously added: "Occasionally I see something interesting and think it'd make a book, but then I come to my senses."

In my 2014 review of Lathen's crime novel Double, Double, Oil and Trouble, I lamented that the Lathen books were out-of-print, but they have since been reprinted.  Unfortunately, the new editions, produced by Simply Media (a creation of one Deaver Brown), have been criticized as being shoddily produced and riddled with typos, transpositions and misspellings.

Most concerning, however, is the claim of Simply Media/Deaver Brown that additional Emma Lathen mysteries were published by Martha Henissart since Mary Jane Latsis's death.  According to Simply Media there are, in addition to the 24 John Putnam Thatcher mysteries published between 1961 and 1997, 6 Elizabeth and John Putnam Thatcher mysteries (with distressingly literal titles), published between 1999 and 2016:

Political Murder, 1999
Dot Com Murder, 2001
Biking Murder 2005
Nonprofit Murder 2008
Union Murder 2010
Gig Murder, 2016


Do these sound like Emma Lathen books to you?  If Martha Henissart had written five novels before her 2012 interview with the representative from the Mount Holyoke Alumni Association, why did she say she had written "not a word" of mystery fiction since Latsis's death?  Why were these books not reviewed somewhere, when Lathen has thousands of fans?  Why were they not publicized on mystery blogs and in mystery magazines?  Most of all, who the heck published them?

Well, we know that there are two of these titles in print, the first two on the above list, Political Murder and Dot Com Murder.  They both have been published by, surprise, surprise (as Gomer says) Simply Media, with the text being attributed to  Emma Lathen, Martha Henissart, Simply Media and Deaver Brown.  Both books have been abominably reviewed on Amazon.com.  See, for example, under the heading Emma Lathen Is Gone:

This is the worst piece of crap I have seen in a long time.  Whoever wrote this miserable book thinks that a few IT terms thrown around constitutes a book.  This is not a novel but a collection of some abbreviated terms that are supposed to make us think a story is here.  I am so sorry that this offering should make any appearance under the name of Lathen.  Don't even bother looking for any idea of what the Sloan [Guaranty Trust] used to be; it has been murdered and is now dead and buried.  RIP!

So what is going on here?  It's hard to believe that Martha Henissart could have had a hand in the composition of any such books as these, particularly in 1999 and 2001, just a few years after she produced, with Latsis, the still quite enjoyable A Shark out of Water (1997)  To the end the two women were very much collaborators, as explained in Latsis's 1997 obituary in the New York Times:

....they would first agree on the basic structure and major characters, then write and exchange alternating chapters.  Miss Latsis, composing in pen on yellow legal pads while sitting in a chair, always produced the first one, and Miss Henissart, using a manual typewriter, the last.

They would then get together for a final joint rewrite, ironing out inconsistencies and gradually synthesizing a distinctive composite style.


In yet another eBook, Whatever Happened to Emma Lathen? (this creepily reminding me of Whatever to Baby Jane?), Deaver Brown states that he met Martha Henissart in the spring of 2016, when she was 90.  (Actually at that time she would have been 86, having been born on June 4, 1929.)  Was Henissart at this time persuaded to let Deaver Brown do some sort of continuation of the Thatcher series?  It's a troubling question, given some of the news stories from the last decade about Mr. Brown and Simply Media.

According to the New Hampshire Business Review, for example, a federal judge, Steven McAuliffe, found in 2008 that Deaver Brown and his wife "swindled investors in their New Hampshire company out of some $1.6 million...."

The scheme proved to be highly effective, yet it was quite simple.  First, the Browns formed Simply Media, Inc.  Then, armed with apparently bogus profit and loss statements prepared by Deaver, a few sample products and a compelling yarn of historical success woven by Deaver, the couple approached well-to-do friends and acquaintances and offered them the 'opportunity' to to own a portion of the company....The Browns used that money to pay for all manner of personal expenses, including, for example, personal dry cleaning bills, individual memberships at an athletic club and payments on the mortgage loan on their home....Not surprisingly, the capital was soon spent, and the supply of gullible investors dried up.  Simply Media was put into bankruptcy.

"He'll shut down a company and start up another one," ominously stated David Schmerin, whose business won a judgment against a former Deaver Brown company, CD Tiles.  "There's no stopping this man."

Well, sure enough, Simply Media is back and it is publishing Emma Lathen.  Egad.  Emma Lathen devoted her much-praised crime fiction career to chronicling various forms of ingenious financial frauds (with some murder thrown in), making it ironic indeed that this particular concern is now publishing her books.

As our current president, who certainly knows a thing or two about shady business dealings (though admittedly on a much bigger level), would tweet: Sad!

I'm fearfully reminded of the case of the late Marian Babson, who like Martha Henissart was born in the northeastern US in 1929.  (Babson seven months later, on December 15).  In 2015 Babson made the news in England, where she had long resided, when she discovered, even though she was suffering from dementia and wheelchair-bound, that her caregiver had looted over 27,000 pounds from her bank account.  Babson was an only child with no cousins living overseas and was cruelly taken advantage of in her infirm old age by a callously dishonest individual.  I would hate to think this sort of thing could have have happened to another distinguished, elderly mystery writer.

2 comments:

  1. Very upsetting. Lathen was one of my favorites.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, I hope we find out something more about what’s going on exactly.

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