Sunday, January 28, 2018

Deadly Detente: Murder Against the Grain (1967), by Emma Lathen

[Emma Lathen] is a sort of Jane Austen of the detective novel, crisp, detached, mocking, economical....

                                                                                                        --The London Times

Emma Lathen's crime novel When in Greece (1969)--written in a white heat of outraged inspiration over a mere six weeks by Lathen (Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart) after the right-wing Generals' Coup was staged on April 21, 1967 in the country dubbed the cradle of democracy (Latsis was the daughter of Greek immigrants)--was shortlisted for an Edgar Award (losing to Dick Francis's Forfeit), making it the only Lathen novel to win notice from the Mystery Writers of America.  This was despite the acclaim Lathen received throughout the Sixties from American mystery critics (most notably, until his untimely death in 1968, Anthony Boucher of the New York Times).

From Britain's Crime Writers Association Lathen received more love, however, winning not only the CWA's Silver Dagger for her mystery Accounting for Murder (1964) but the highly coveted Golden Dagger for Murder against the Grain, a book Anthony Boucher had handsomely praised, in his last review of an Emma Lathen novel before his death, with words of which the busy blurbist all-too-often can but dream of descrying:

I keep saying 'urbane, witty, faultless, delightful'--what other adjectives is one to use for Lathen's precise blends of formal detection and acute social satire.

Russians up to no good
--or something else?
Murder against the Grain came out on the heels of Lathen's lauded Death Shall Overcome (1966), in which the author's penchant for social satire was raised to new heights.  There the subject was the struggle for civil rights on the New York Stock Exchange--though interestingly Latsis and Henissart in an interview once noted that the book was written in 1964 and was supposed to have been published in 1965, before Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round (1966), which would have made it even more topical.  (Just why it was held up is not clear--ostensibly it was "technical" reasons.) 

Social satire is evident as well in Murder against the Grain, where Lathen again tackles a broad topic: the state of US-USSR political and economic relations.  We can't call that one dated, can we? (Though Russia's position as a wheat producer has changed for the better, to be sure.)

After the annihilating specter of nuclear war menaced the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union underwent some small degree of diminution over the next few years, with both countries signing the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (concerning nuclear weapons testing), the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. 

With the commencement of the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1969, the term detente (relaxation) would come into vogue as a catchy way of encapsulating the American policy of easing relations with the USSR though diplomacy. This policy, damned as hopelessly naive by American conservatives, would terminate with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the election to the presidency in 1980 of Ronald Reagan; and over the next dozen years the world would witness the stunning dissolution of the USSR and its captive Eastern Bloc in Europe, though not without a spot of detente engineered by President Reagan and the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Spies Like Us
This Pocket edition of Grain made
Emma Lathen's latest crime opus
look more like Ian Fleming's
From Russia, with Love.
In Murder Against the Grain, Emma Lathen captures the Sixties pre-detente era with a story about a much-ballyhooed trade deal between the US and USSR that goes gone terribly wrong. 

For once eschewing her usual Trollopean narrative opening about Wall Street (Wall Street is....) in Grain, Lathen instead gives us a wry (or should I say rye) two-page prologue detailing global newspaper reports of a trade deal between the two countries, under the terms of which the US has agreed to sell 40 million bushels of wheat to the USSR, whose latest five-year plan has failed--as was so often the way with even the best-laid five-year plans--to meet expectations. 

It is hoped that the wheat deal will dissipate tensions between the two countries, but things soon go perilously wrong, as the deal is plagued with the weevils of theft and murder!

The mammoth Sloan Guaranty Trust of New York is left holding a very large and very empty bag when $985,000 (I was reminded of the dreadfully dated Dr. Evil's "one million dollars!" demand) involved in the wheat transaction is diverted, by means of forged bills of lading, to at least one coolly calculating criminal.  Then the driver who delivered the Sloan's ginormous check is found shot dead on the footsteps of the Russian embassy.  Was he a man who knew too much--and died on account of his knowledge?

Speaking of knowledge, Sloan has on hand its sage Senior Vice President, John Putnam Thatcher, who not only is extraordinarily adept at solving cases of fraud and theft in high places, but at digging up the dirt on low murder as well. This time around Thatcher is aided by both American and Russian investigators (the latter specially flown over from Moscow), but he is the one who finally cracks the clever crime, with the aid, albeit inadvertent, of his super-efficient Miss Lemonesque secretary, Miss Corsa.

On the whole I grade Murder Against the Grain higher than Death Shall Overcome.  There's a more concentrated focus on the crime plot and a more varied group of characters, including not just the usual male Wall Street bigwigs (of whom in this one regular Everett Gabler stands out for satirical mirth), but Soviet diplomats (including a fetching female interpreter), assorted secretaries and drivers and one tough cookie of a woman garage owner. 

No doubt when the big wheat deal went through
in Emma Lathen's Murder Against the Grain
many of the good people of the USSR
enjoyed more than a few dishes of kutia.
(for a Ukrainian version of the recipe
see Claudia's Cookbook--Ukrainian dissidents
play a role in Lathen's book, incidentally)
The criminal plot is interesting and the writing engaging.  American paperback publishers in the 1970s dubbed Emma Lathen America's Agatha Christie, but Lathen's ingenious tales of corporate malfeasance remind me more of Christie's contemporary Freeman Wills Crofts--though Lathen, it must be admitted, is a far better writer to Crofts (though, yet again, putative puzzle purists like S. S. Van Dine and Jacques Barzun would counter that literary skill is a snare and a delusion for detective novelists, distracting them from portraying the rigors of ratiocination).  However, in the 1970s it seems certain that America's Freeman Will Crofts did not have the same cachet as a slogan.

Soon I plan to look at just why Emma Lathen appealed so much to British mystery reviewers.  It turns out there was more that was "English" about Emma Lathen than her writing.  Stay tuned.


  1. I really like the cover of the 1970s Penguin edition - a hammer and sickle, with the hammer replaced by a gun and silencer!

  2. Lathen, from what I've read of her (a few titles starting with Thatcher's debut and as recent as Brewing Up a Storm) was a great exemplar of Silver Age mystery writing. I look forward to reading this one as well.