Monday, January 15, 2018

Guess Who's Coming to Murder? Death Shall Overcome (1966), by Emma Lathen

"WALL STREET RACISTS ON KILLING SPREE," screamed one headline.

"Ran into Glover this morning.  He tells me that Owen Abercrombie has gone crazy."
"How could he tell?" asked Thatcher with genuine interest.
"Says he's talking about a Wall Street Defense Council," said Robichaux.  "With rifles.  You remember they had to take his uncle Basil off the floor in a straitjacket in '29."
"I didn't," said Thatcher, considerably entertained.
"Bad blood," Robichaux said.

"Well I ask you," Robichaux replied reasonably.  "Would you want the Sloan mixed up with someone who wants to send Negroes back to Africa, abolish social security and drop the hydrogen bomb on Cuba?"

.... as he looked at Owen Abercrombie's ponderous, underslung jaw and glittering feral eyes, he was tempted  to think that he had receded though several major geological eras and was surrounded by Neanderthals.

"They're all against us.  They'll try to muzzle us, try to smear us.  Are we going to let them get away with it?
"You're the only ones left to defend America.  Are you going to let the pinkos take over?"

a broker exits

I'm always struck when I see people declare that a given eighty or fifty or even thirty year old detective novel is "dated," because it seems to me that the old adage, "the more things change, the more they stay the same," has something of the ring of truth to it--as does another, "those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

Looking around today, I don't feel that Emma Lathen's fifth detective novel, Death Shall Overcome, is so all-round dated, despite the old-fashioned terminology ("negro" for black) and the fact that women play no role in the business world except as wives and secretaries. Where race is concerned, we still seem to be grappling with a lot of similar issues today.  A novel wherein one of the main characters is an old racist New York businessman of questionable mental stability who gives encouraging winks and nods to racial hate groups?  Not so dated, I think!

1966 was another troubled year for the United States and much of the rest of the world but an undeniably great year for crime writer Emma Lathen (the economist Mary Jane Latsis and attorney Martha Henissart).  With a fecundity which we associate with great Golden Age mystery producers like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, Lathen that year published two detective novels about her appealing amateur sleuth, banker John Putnam Thatcher (Senior Vice President of the Sloan Guaranty Trust): Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round and Death Shall Overcome.  The pair of detective novels received boffo reviews at the time in both the United States and United Kingdom, sold like hotcakes over the years in paperback and today remain highly regarded by fans of classic crime fiction (even if the recent Thatcher eBook editions are disappointingly shoddy).

to me Lathen's cover sleuth John Putnam Thatcher
here looks like a cross between Dick Cavett and
Tom Wolfe--the latter, incidentally, an author,
it seems to me, to whom she might be compared,
just as she had been by some admirers to Jane Austen
Emma Lathen, who published her first Thatcher detective novel in 1961, would go on to produce pairs of Thatcher mysteries in additional years--1968, 1969 and 1971--as well as Thatcher singletons every other year between 1967 and 1972, for  a total of 14 Thatcher novels in the dozen years that spanned 1961 and 1972--one of the most remarkable achievements by any mystery writer, I believe, in the Silver Age of detective fiction. 

Lathen later managed two more sequences of Thatcher novels, five between 1974 and 1982 (including Double, Double, Oil and Troublereviewed here) and a final five between 1988 and 1997, the year of Mary Jane Latsis's death.  Then there were seven mysteries the pair wrote as RB Dominic, one pseudonym--as in the case of Carr and his incredibly prolific detective novelist friend John Street--not being enough to contain the pair's creative energies; these appeared in two spurts, 3 from 1968 to 1971 and 4 from 1978 to 1983.

Going back 52 years to 1966, when the Passing Tramp was but a Pramming Toddler and a mystery reader yet to be, Lathen's two detective novels from that year illustrate her three great strengths: puzzle plotting, business detail and social satire. 

Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round
is stronger on the puzzle side of the ledger, but Death Shall Overcome should be of great interest to readers today for its wry social detail.  Moreover, the puzzle is no slouch, though, like Dorothy L. Sayers's Gaudy Night, it tends to get overshadowed by the author's social interest.

As suggested by the title of Death Shall Overcome, which alludes to the social activist anthem "We Shall Overcome", in this novel Emma Lathen drew inspiration from the long struggle of black Americans for civil rights, which reached a climax, of sorts, in the Sixties.  On August 6, 1965, American president Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act; a week later the Watts riots erupted in a section of Los Angeles over allegations of police brutality.   In January of the next year local NAACP chapter president Vernon Dahmer was killed by a bomb in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and the Black Panther Party was founded in October, the same month Death Shall Overcome was published.  Martin Luther King, Jr. himself had only about a year-and-a-half left to live, before he was cut down by a white assassin at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

A lot of writers, especially those of the more traditional sort of crime fiction, might well have left this touchy topic untouched, given all the controversy and all too real trauma and pain surrounding it, yet during her career Emma Lathen never shied from taking on topical events, right up to her last novel, published in 1997, which dealt with collapse of Communism in the former states of the Eastern Bloc.

In Death Shall Overcome, Wall Street has ructions aplenty when the octogenarian Nat Schuyler, the puckishly subversive eminence of ultra-prestigious brokerage firm Schuyler & Schuyler, announces that the firm plans to take  on as a new partner (fatefully with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange) distinguished multi-millionaire banker Edward Parry, who just happens to be a "negro," to use the terminology of the novel. 

Utterly appalled by this development are hidebound white racists Owen Abercrombie ("Wall Street's most vocal ultraconservative") and Dean Caldwell, young senior analyst of Schuyler & Schuyler ("He's from Alabama"), despite the fact that Edward Parry is "a replica of a Wall Street financier with a dark skin" who "in a happier era," Lathen drolly observes, "might have been a Republican."  Parry seems a true paragon of virtue, something like Sidney Poitier in the 1967 Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?--though refreshingly to my taste the Lathen novel is vastly more acerbic than that well-meant but rather saccharine and didactic star-turning film.

At an elite social get-together, however, it is not Edward Parry who drops dead but rather another partner in S&S, Arthur Foote, who is shockingly done in by means of nicotine dropped into his Bloody Mary highball glass.  But was the true target actually Edward Parry?  This theory seems to get confirmation when someone takes an errant rifle shot at Parry, outside his home in a wealthy--and lily white--suburban neighborhood.  Of Parry's admittance into this august community comments Lathen sardonically, "they were perfectly prepared to embrace any one-home builder, provided only that he was a multimillionaire."

Actual detection gets sidelined for a long time as Lathen amusingly deals with the consequences of wealthy white resistance to Parry's elevation to the Stock Exchange. 

Black novelist Richard Simpson, who opportunistically  has formed the group CASH (Colored Association of Share Holders) indiscriminately threatens the elite of New York with a "March on Wall Street"--this an allusion to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches, which had helped secure passage of the Voting Rights Act. (I was also reminded of, from more recent years, Occupy Wall Street.)

I think there's no doubt the women who wrote as Emma Lathen were fairly liberal on many issues and in Death Shall Overcome they rebuke white racists roundly; yet it seems to me that they also treat Richard Simpson as something of a posturing phony, more concerned with gratifying his own ego than meaningfully expanding civil liberty.  Is he based on the distinguished black author James Baldwin?  Here's the character's introduction to the reader:

Mr. Simpson, noted for his simpleminded and successful novels about an expatriate in Paris and his beautiful relationship with a sylphlike busboy, had the resonant voice of an actor, and a firm grasp on the microphone thrust before him.

Be that as it may, this novel managed to unite in a chorus of praise both the conservative critic Jacques Barzun and the liberal critic Anthony Boucher, both of whom were lovers of mystery fiction, though they frequently were at odds not only politically but aesthetically.  Barzun, a putative puzzle purist, was so impressed with Lathen's treatment of "the civil rights movement, with its attendant sing-ins and sit-ins," that he forgave her "playing down of mystery and detection in favor of social comment and superb characterization"; while in a contemporary notice Boucher proclaimed Lathen's latest her best work yet and a "wonderfully rational and pointed novel."

Traditionalists never fear, though: there is a good puzzle here, with impeccable clueing, if only sporadic investigation.  If you're a fan of classic crime fiction, Emma Lathen should overcome your entertainment doldrums.


  1. Lathen is a favourite of mine too - particularly the early ones. I note from Amazon that there are two books labelled "Elizabeth Thatcher mysteries" supposedly co-authored by Lathen and Deaver Brown (with one extremely negative review for each) - do you know anything about these?

    1. This is very troubling to me. The Emma Lathen eBooks seem to be a product of Deaver Brown and Simply Media, which sounds like a questionable affair. Are those two new books really authored by Martha Henissart, the surviving Emma Lathen partner, as they are purported to have been? She would have been 87 when they were published. I hope someone has not been taking advantage. The Lathen books deserve a far better reissuing than this.

      “While financial leaders wring their hands over the alleged $50 billion fraud of Bernard Madoff, New Hampshire and Massachusetts saw an investment scam on a smaller scale in terms of dollars, but just as blatant in its abuse of investors.

      The case of Simply Media Inc. "had all the earmarks of an old-fashioned investment scam" is how Chief Judge Steven McAuliffe of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire opened his decision in the matter.

      Christina and Deaver Brown, of Lincoln, Mass., started a company they called Simply Media Inc. Then they cooked up what the court called bogus profit and loss statements to bilk unwitting investors out of $1.6 million.

      The Browns went to wealthy friends and acquaintances, offering an "opportunity" to get in on the ground floor of the phony company. Deaver Brown apparently used his "personal charm" in pushing the investment. He also claimed "enormous" sales through the big-box retailers we all recognize.

      After pocketing $1.6 million from investors, the Browns, the court found, paid "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." (Notinger v. Brown, et. al., U.S. District Court, District of NH, Oct. 6, 2008.)

      Either there was one huge pile of dry cleaning or the mortgage on the Lincoln, Mass., home was exorbitant. As the New Hampshire judge put it, not surprisingly, the money was soon spent and the supply of gullible investors dried up.

      In bankruptcy, it was found that the Browns "deliberately and systematically" destroyed financial documents. Bank statements, lists of investors, product inventories and retail sale records all vanished. The case goes into the law books on the issue of spoliation of evidence.

      The Browns' undoing was the discovery of a trail of bank checks on the corporation's accounts. Corporate accounts, filled with investor money, were treated like personal funds. One of several cases in the federal courts was to recover investor money that Christina Brown was found to have used for personal expenses.

      Brown was found to have engaged in a civil conspiracy, siphoning money away from the company in order to hinder, delay or defraud creditors.

      In the end, evidence showed that Simply Media was little more than a sham corporation with few if any real customers, virtually no inventory of products or operational expenses, and laughably fictitious "obviously fabricated" accounting records. Little investor money was actually used to fund legitimate business operations.

      Financial experts tell us to check out any investment to make sure it is solid. Bernard Madoff apparently pulled it off, because who would question a former head of NASDAQ? In the Simply Media case, the Browns are said to have used their personal charm and social skills. But if investors had gone to the big box stores to see if any Simply Media products were actually being sold, they could have saved themselves some consternation.


      Andrew Myers of Derry has law offices in Derry and North Andover, Mass. He is a member of the American Association for Justice and the New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association.“

  2. I was intrigued by this "An Elizabeth Thatcher Mystery" nonsense. So I read the reviews for Dot Com Murder. All of them are scathing and dismissive. It appears to be a book based on Brown's shady past ("There's much excruciating detail about big money manipulations, ways to disguise one's identity, and impenetrable machinations of international money laundering." Another review says that Deaver Brown's books are mentioned throughout the text!

    Here's a review for the other one called Political Murder: "Horrible writing, ridiculous plot, no mystery. Compared bank leaving US for a tax haven to Jews fleeing Hitler's Germany. Married heroine to self-identified gay man to make his parents happy."

    That right there tells me that these are fake books and have nothing to do with Lathen's series. The gall of this crook passing off his bad writing as a partnership with Emma Lathen.

    I then looked up the non-fiction audio books still offered by Simply Media. Some of them seem to tell his life story: Angel Investing: Finding and Closing the Right Deal; Business Startup: Launch Your Dream; Financial Statements: Learning from Them and Making Them Work for You; Legal Proceedings: Being a Witness, Deponent, Plaintiff or Defendant; Handling Difficult People; and Legal Survival Kit. The only thing missing is a how-to guide for surviving bankruptcy. But then seeing as he filed Chapter 7 more than once (for two other companies!) looks like he hasn't quite figured that out yet.

  3. Brown claims to have met Martha Henissart in 2016, when she was 90, though in fact she would have been 87 then. I notice the "new" Emma Lathen books are copyrighted then, in the names of Emma Lathen, Martha Henissart, Simply Media and Deaver Brown.

    A Goodreads page lists six books in the supposed Elizabeth Thatcher series by Emma Lathen:

    Political Murder 1999. Death of a Senator.
    Dot Com Murder 2001. Death of a Dot Com Leader.
    Biking Murder 2005. Death of a Bike Lane Advocate.
    Nonprofit Murder 2008. Death of a Nonprofit CEO.
    Union Murder 2010. Death of a Union Leader.
    Gig Murder. 2016.

    Yet the only two available are the first two, and they are both copyrighted 2016. Very odd. Hard to believe any of these are really Emma Lathen titles. Emma Lathen herself was quoted in 2012 as saying she hadn't written a word of mystery fiction since Mary Jane Latsis's death in 1997.

    It's a shame to see an author of Emma Lathen's stature being made available in such poorly produced editions, but the legal question is whether it was done with Henissart's consent or not. If it was, that's too bad, but that's the way it goes (assuming Henissart was not taken advantage of in some way). But if no permission was obtained this is criminal. It would be nice to get to the bottom of it.

    The great irony here is that this is a plot worthy of an Emma Lathen novel.

  4. Another troubling article:

    Published: October 8, 2008
    CONCORD - A Lincoln, Mass., couple swindled investors in their New Hampshire company out of some $1.6 million, a federal judge has ruled.

    In a ruling Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Steven McAuliffe reduced a jury's $2.9 million verdict to $1.6 million, but his ruling suggests the case might best have been handled by federal prosecutors.

    "This case arises out of a business operation that had all the earmarks of an old-fashioned investment scam," McAuliffe wrote.

    No criminal charges have been filed, however, against the couple who McAuliffe said perpetrated the scam, Christina and Deaver Brown of Lincoln, so far as The Telegraph was able to find.

    McAuliffe's ruling arose out of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy case of Simply Media Inc. of Campton. The corporation filed for bankruptcy in 2006, purporting to have no assets whatsoever, according to court records.

    In August, attorney Steven Notinger, the Nashua lawyer appointed as a trustee to oversee the bankruptcy case, filed a complaint against Christina (Rago) Brown and other nominal directors of the company, seeking a jury trial.

    Notinger claimed that the company's directors failed to exert any control over the company, ceding all authority to Christina and Deaver Brown, "and sat idly by as the Browns benefited personally while Simply Media endured significant harm."

    Notinger could not be reached Tuesday afternoon.

    A jury in U.S. District Court heard the case in June and returned a $2.9 million judgment for the trustee, money that would ultimately be used to repay people who invested or loaned money to Simply Media.

    McAuliffe also issued a scathing ruling Monday, suggesting that the Browns' corporation was little more than a scam.

    "The scheme proved to be highly effective, yet it was quite simple," McAuliffe wrote. "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 own a portion of the company."

    The Browns persuaded investors to part with a total of about $1.6 million, McAuliffe wrote. "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," he wrote.

    "Not surprisingly, the capital was soon spent, and the supply of gullible investors dried up. Simply Media was put into bankruptcy," McAuliffe wrote.

    Reached Tuesday by e-mail, Deaver Brown wrote that the company will appeal McAuliffe's order. Brown added that he was not a defendant in the case and that none of the directors of Simply Media took a salary from the company.

    The Browns have been found responsible for similar conduct before, involving a former Massachusetts company, CD Titles Inc., court records show. CD Titles Inc. filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Massachusetts in 1998, and the case was finally closed in 2005, court records show.

    David Schmerin of Las Vegas, and his company, Wrightwood Laboratories, sued CD Titles in 1998, and won a judgment against the company in Suffolk County Superior Court in Massachusetts, but Schmerin said Tuesday that collecting has been another battle. "He'll shut down a company and start up another one," Schmerin said of Deaver Brown. "There is no stopping this man."

  5. Also disturbing is this YouTube video. Evidently this is Deaver Brown.

  6. Good choice of review for MLK day. I haven't yet read Death Shall Overcome, which is why I had to just skip and skim here to avoid spoilers. I have sampled the Thatcher series, though, with the debut being the earliest one I've read and Brewing Up a Storm being the most recent. It's very much a Silver Age crime series, I think, adapting the amateur detective subgenre for a slightly more skeptical age.

    1. Yes, I think their books are a good updating. As Emma Lathen (one of the ladies) said, the people in their books work--no lazing around country houses all weekend until the murder takes place!

      Yes, I wanted to commemorate MLK day some way on the blog.