Sunday, February 4, 2018

Identity: By Hook or By Crook (1975), by Emma Lathen (with New Details on Emma Lathen Creators Martha Henissart and Mary Jane Latsis)

Ordinarily, the collapse of an obscure, elderly women in public places does not cause much excitement in newsrooms.  But any overly alert reporter could have uncovered the makings of a tabloid's delight--the disputed claims to a fortune, the long-lost relative, the poisoned toast at a family reunion.

"One thing I'll say. If you've got to get yourself killed, Fifth Avenue's the place to do it."

For every lie told about sex, there are a thousand told about dollars.

--By Hook or By Crook (1975), by Emma Lathen    

Cases of reputed lost heirs returning--in extreme peril of their lives as it turns out--to stake a claim to a family fortune are a favored "problem" in classic mystery.  See, for example, Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, Patricia Wentworth's The Traveller Returns, E. R. Punshon's Ten Star Clues and John Dickson Carr's The Crooked Hinge. (For more on this intriguing subject, see my introduction to Dean Street Press' new edition of Ten Star Clues). 

It is just such a case that Emma Lathen tackles in one of the most classic of her mysteries, By Hook or By Crook.  The novel tells of a pair of nasty murders impacting Parajians, Incorporated, "the largest Oriental-rug business" in the United States.

The family-run firm of Parajians was founded, as rug aficionados around the world know, by Paul Parajian, a dynamic Graeco-Armenian widower who migrated with his younger brother, Haig, to the United States in 1935, leaving behind three children, two boys and a girl (Mark, Gregory and Sara), with his mother in Greece. 

With the onset of the Second World War and the brutal Axis occupation of Greece as well as the chaos that beset the unfortunate country in the years after the conflict, when it became another bloody arena in the Cold War, Paul, having since remarried, was only able to find and retrieve his three children from a refugee camp in 1948.

Before the Second World War, Paul's sister, Veron, moved to Yerevan, Armenia (then a republic of the Soviet Union) and married a man named Harum Aratounian.  Now decades later, in the waning years of the regime of the Shah of Iran, a woman claiming to be the widowed Mrs. Aratounian has popped up in Tehran at the offices of Persian rug dealer Hector Khassim. 

Iran is the major source of Parajian rugs, though improving economic and social circumstances have led to Iranian women abandoning the trade for more attractive employment prospects in other fields and to Paul Parajian casting his eyes increasingly fondly at the labor markets in Pakistan and India.

When the alleged Veron Aratounian comes over to the US to meet her American family (and claim shares in the family's lucrative business), familial discord promptly ensues, for while Paul accepts the woman's claim, his restive relations--particularly his obnoxious, snobbish daughter-in-law, Lois Parajian (nee Turnbull)--remain dubious of their reemerged "aunt" (Lois very vocally so). 

Things quickly get much worse when Veron drops dead in the lobby of the Sloan Guaranty Trust Building, shortly after having partaken of a luncheon with the family.  An autopsy reveals that she has been poisoned! 

Soon another murder of a prominent individual in the colorful Parajian menagerie follows (this time at that holy of holies, the Parajians' Fifth Avenue showroom), with poison again having been the means of achieving termination.

called on the carpet
I like the design of these Penguin
pb eds., done when Julian Symons
was crime fiction editor--though
 the old ladydoes not conveniently
collapse on a Persian rug.
It's symbolic, people!
The energetic and intelligent Captain Muller of the NYPD is soon on the case--and there is no sidetracking the determined Muller, no matter how much the wealthy and entitled New York family tries.

Yet of course it will be the Sloan's Senior Vice President, John Putnam Thatcher, now encountering his sixteenth case of murder (banking seems rather a dangerous business), who ultimately brings two killings home to their culprit, in a classic confrontation scene at a beach "cottage" at the far end of Long Island during an oncoming storm.

In some of the Emma Lathen mysteries the murder(s) can feel a bit tacked on, to be sure.  The women writing as Lathen reflected that that while they themselves were most interested in devising devious corporate fraud scenarios, the conventions of the detective novel form compelled them invariably to include murder in their mysteries.  However, in By Hook or By Crook, murder comes first. 

This is a story that could have been plotted by Agatha Christie or any of the Golden Age virtuosi of detection, and I heartily recommend it to fans of puzzlers.  The only thing missing (from my edition, anyway) is a family tree!

As usual the writing is bright and engaging, sharp and insightful.  I particularly liked the picture of an economically emergent Iran just a few years before the stern revolution spearheaded by the Ayatollah Khomeini closed other, more humane paths for the country's development:

A rug to die for?
Any summary of recent Iranian history was bound to spell bad news for a rug buyer.  First, the sons and grandsons of weavers left the looms to work in the oil fields.  Then with the oil revenues piling up, the Shah decided to encourage industrial growth--and women flocked into new, better-paying occupations.  Now, a new school system was going to drain the pool of weavers even more.

I recollect that it was two years after this novel was published that I saw placard-bearing Iranian protesters during a school trip I was on to Washington, D. C.

Concerning much more recent events in another country, I found this passage of particular interest:

Years ago, when the upper echelons of the U. S. government had lapsed into permanent insanity, Thatcher had consoled himself by recalling that the same bureaucracy harbors thousands of capable employees, getting on with the job, while all around them lose their heads.  There are also hundreds of true experts whose mere existence is a bulwark against national disaster.

Doubtlessly certain quarters of today's increasingly and lucratively apocalyptic news/entertainment media complex would denounce Emma Lathen as an insidious modern apologist for the Deep State.

protesting the Shah of Iran--
and his primary backer
It is Emma Lathen's sharp observation of the frequently absurd and ironically amusing human condition which means that her books will never really date, whatever the exact historical circumstances which may have pertained in a particular time.  As for her often oh-so clever puzzles, there is no doubt in my mind that a good puzzle never dates, at least if one is a true fan of classic mystery.

Concerning the matter of puzzles, a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement pronounced the year before By Hook or By Crook was published that "Of the true, intelligent detective story, Emma Lathen is probably now the only competent proponent." 

Ouch! That word "competent" is especially damning, because it means that while there were other puzzle writers besides Lathen at the time, they just weren't any good in the eyes of the reviewer. 

I think this pronouncement is an overstatement.  Setting aside the fact that Agatha Christie and Rex Stout would publish detective novels in 1975, what about Ruth Rendell, PD James, Peter Lovesey, Reginald Hill, Catherine Aird, Patricia Moyes, all of whom were active at the time?  Yet as a tribute to the undoubted mystery-making merit of Emma Lathen this encomium is amply deserved.

skepticism about the American "melting pot" ideal
abounded in many quarters of the United States
during the 1920s
See the Opper Project
Another aspect of Crook that stood out for me concerns the author's ruminations and reflections on the immigrant experience in America.

This is yet another hot button topic in the US right now, as some highly vocal individuals in our country seem determined to return us to the 1950s--I've seen people commenting that Joe McCarthy wasn't so bad, really--or even to the 1920s, when J. Edgar Hoover began his long career of implacably pursuing Reds and violating civil liberties, national Prohibition went into force on the wings of the righteous outrage of rural America teetotalers and a selectively restrictive immigration bill was enacted by the federal government. Oh, those were the days all right.

In Crook Paul Parajian is a remarkable testament, albeit a fictional one, to the will and the drive of a Graeco-Armenian who migrated to the US after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which was aimed at seriously restricting the immigration of people like Paul Parajian, who came from what the supporters of the act deemed, to borrow a term from our current occupier of the White House, "shithole" countries. 

Back in the Roaring Twenties, a resurgent and toxically racist Ku Klux Klan (at the time an influential national organization, unlike during Reconstruction, where it was confined to the South) was extremely vocal in its denunciations of immigrants from southern Europe and Asia.  In the Twenties the Grand Dragon of the Klan in the state of Oregon, for example, warned that "the great influx of foreign laborers, mostly Greeks, is threatening our American institutions."  As I see it, this dire pronouncement is not so far removed from, in terms of its damningly sweeping nature (limply insincere caveat notwithstanding), from: "They're bringing drugs.  They're bringing crime.  They're rapists.  And some, I assume, are good people."  History does repeat itself.

not all European countries were viewed with
equal favor by the devisors of the Immigration Act of 1924
as this map illustrates
Both Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart were daughters of immigrants.  Latsis' parents, as I have mentioned previously, came, like the fictional Paul Parajian, from Greece, while Hennisart's came from England and Poland.

Latsis' parents, who wed in Chicago in 1922, were John Helias and Mary Zachos Latsis. John Helias Latsis, who was two decades older than his wife, had migrated to the US by 1910, when he was boarding with two of his brothers, Peter and Harry Hila Latsis, at 4015 Congress Street. 

Like the maternal grandfather of the beloved American actress and Chicago native Betty White--one Nick Cachikis, who peddled ice cream from a pushcart--and multitudes of additional hard-working Greek men who migrated to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the three Latsis brothers labored in the produce business, in their case by clerking together at a fruit stand. 

Although Nick Cachikis was buried in a potter's field in Chicago, the Latsis men rose markedly upward in life, by 1930 owning three drugstores in the Chicago suburbs of Oak Park and Forest Park (see ad below).

Mary Jane Latsis in high school
in Oak Park, Illinois
John and Mary Latsis, who lived in Oak Park, sent their only child Mary Jane, who was born in 1927 (five years after Betty White was born in Oak Park), to Wellesley College and Harvard University, where she received a degree in public administration. During the Korean War the recently graduated Latsis worked for the CIA and after the war she was employed for two years as an economist with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. 

After her stint in Rome, Latsis returned to the US to teach economics at Wellesley, where she again came across her old Harvard classmate Martha Henissart, who had taken on a legal position in Boston. 

Both women being confirmed mystery fans, the pair soon decided themselves to write detective novels, drawing on their experiences in business and government (unusual for American women of their day). As Emma Lathen they published their first novel, Banking on Death, in 1961, and the rest was mystery history.

What a remarkable story indeed.  But would any of it have ever come about had the Immigration Act of 1924 been become law earlier in the century? 

Perhaps ardent immigration restrictionists would have deemed Martha Henissart's father more acceptable than Latsis', as he was born in England rather than Greece and came to the US already established in an executive position; yet even migration to the US from Britain declined after the Immigration Act went in force (though much less so than immigration from southern European countries).

Ad published in the Omaha (Nebraska) Bee on February 9, 1916 (See The National Herald)
A. Kyser presumably was Adelbert Kyser, a Kearny, Nebraska grocer
who one assumes from the surname was descended from Germans
a group pronounced (and denounced) in the 18th century by no less than
Benjamin Franklin as unassimilable.  Three years after this ad appeared, Greek
immigrant Peter Kotsiopulos settled in Kearney, opening a dry cleaning establishment
which is still in operation today.  He named it Liberty Dry Cleaning Co., in honor of
the Statue of Liberty.  See The First Greeks in Kearney.
My great-uncle Walter Evans, incidentally, at this time was the station agent
for the Union Pacific station at nearby Shelton, Nebraska. Walter once took
my father, then about ten years old, to the station to watch a  train arrive.

Moreover, the native origins of Martha Henissart's mother would have been problematic to restrictionists.  Albert Vandam and his wife Eva Bernardowna Grinoch Henissart, originally came respectively from England (though Albert's birth parents evidently both were French) and what was then Russian-occupied Poland.  I surmise that Eva Grinoch was Jewish, though I do not know this for a fact.

Albert and Eva Henissart came to the US in 1923 from France, where Albert had been employed as the Paris export manager for Antoine Chiris, a celebrated French fragrance company that was founded before the Revolution that overthrew the ancien regime

open for business--in America
Albert went to work for the sales department of the New York branch of Antoine Chiris.  A few weeks before his sudden death at the age of 56 from a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1947, when Martha was but eighteen years old, Albert had been promoted to vice-president in charge of sales.

Having arrived in the US on the eve of the passage of the Immigration Act, Albert and Eve Henissart interestingly only became US citizens in 1944, three years before Albert's death. Albert had been born in Notting Hill, London in 1891, of somewhat uncertain parentage.  It appears from baptism records at Kensal Green that his parents were an Albert and Pauline Henissart, he being a "gentleman" of 61 St. Charles Square, Kensington.

This Albert Henissart possible may have been Jules Romain Albert Henissart, who died in Tunisia in 1906 at the age of 58, leaving his estate to his London dwelling wife, Marie Gabrielle (Luce) Henissart, but would that have made young Albert an illegitimate child?  Who then was Pauline?

In the British census taken that same year, young Albert Henissart resides, as a nursing babe but two months old, in the Worcestershire household of Henry Richard and Sarah Humphreys Casewell. Henry was a gardener on the estate of Charles Tom Barton, a wealthy Kidderminster carpet manufacturer residing at "The Hill" in the village of Wolverley.  Henry and Sarah resided with young Albert on the estate at The Hill Cottage. 

Blakeshall, Wolverley
where Albert Henissart's adoptive father worked as an estate gardner

The couple had met over a decade earlier when they had been employed by Charles Dayus, a veterinary surgeon who resided at 14 High Street in the village of Dorrington, Shropshire, just a few doors down from the post office and the Horse-Shoe Inn (today known as Horseshoes).  There Henry had worked as a groomer of horses and Sarah, the daughter of a Welsh lead miner and Methodist, as a house servant.

Albert was still living with the Casewells as their adopted son in 1901, along with their adopted daughter, Ruth Fairlamb (yes, that is a real surname).  At this time Henry Casewell was a gardener at Blakeshall, the grand Wolverley country estate of William and Edith Hancocks. 

By 1911, young Albert Henissart had left the Casewells (Casewell was working independently this year as a "timber feller"), presumably for France. 

According to records, Henissart had only an eighth grade education, so how did he end up as a business professional in France?  Presumably this was due to his Henissart connections.  In the 1920s he listed his mother as a Mrs. Henissart of 2 Rue Republique, Grenoble, France.  But how did Albert during his infancy and adolescence end up in the care of the Casewells? 

Was Albert illegitimate, and did his father know the Kidderminster carpet manufacturer Charles Tom Barton, who found Albert a place with his gardener Casewell and his wife, a couple apparently unable to bear children? (They adopted at least three.)

In the light of these facts (and speculations), By Hook of By Crook reflects the backgrounds of both Latsis and Henissart.  The Greek back story obviously recalls Latsis' family, but the carpet trade setting, though it involves Greece, Armenia and Persia rather than England, recalls the connection of Henissart's father to the Kidderminster carpet manufacturer Charles Tom Barton. 

Kidderminster was an early English center of textiles production, already by 1677, well before the onset of the Industrial Revolution, boasting 459 weavers and some 3000 spinners.  The ranks of these laborers would soon be bolstered by an influx of French Huguenots, driven from their native homes by religious persecution.  Was Albert Henissart a French Protestant?  His middle name Vandam--surely Dutch?--is suggestive.

Martha Henissart at Harvard Law School
Another interesting aspect of all this is the depiction of gardening in the Lathen novels.  In Crook Mark Parajian's daughter and her husband on the side have a greenhouse business (admittedly none-too-successful).  Another of the Lathen novels, Green Grow the Dollars (1982) is about the farming of organic tomatoes.  And then there's the final Emma Lathen novel, A Shark out of Water, which is set in Gdansk, Poland--the homeland of Martha Henissart's mother.

Obviously Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart had much in common, being the daughters of immigrants and striving, successful businessmen who clearly were supportive of the education of women (or their daughters anyway).

Of Paul Parajian, whose success story resembles, albeit on a much greater scale, that of Albert Vandam Henissart and John Helias Latsis, Lathen tellingly writes of his success:

Surely this must be what he had been dreaming about when he stepped off Ellis Island or even when he opened his first small store.  Not that there was any hint of this background now.  As he made courtly farewells...he looked like a man who had been born to success.

Unlike Latsis, Henissart was not an only child, however, having had a sibling: Paul Henri Henissart, who was born in 1923, the year the Henissarts settled in the US, and died in 1982, the year Emma Lathen stopped publishing novels for a period of six years. 

Like his father and his sister, who graduated from Mount Holyoke and Harvard Law School (where she slightly preceded future US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, when she enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956, was one of nine women out of a student body of over 500), Paul Henissart was an individual of considerable accomplishment.

Paul was educated at Kenyon College, Ohio (with a few years' interruption when he served in world War II) and the Sorbonne, Paris. After graduation he became a radio and print journalist, serving, in a reflection of his parents' cosmopolitanism, as bureau chief in Vienna and Paris for Radio Free Europe and as a correspondent for the New York Times, Newsweek and Time and other news sources in France, North Africa and the Middle East.

Today Paul Henissart is best known as the author of the lauded Wolves in the City: The Death of French Algeria (1970), but he parlayed the success he enjoyed with that book, which was chosen as one of the notable works of the year by the New York Times, into a career as a spy novelist, publishing, before his untimely death at the age of 58 in 1982, Narrow Exit (1973), The Winter Spy (1976) and Margin of Error (1980).  You may hear more about Paul Henissart in weeks to come!

Meanwhile, on By Hook or By Crook by all means check out this terrific post at Clothes in Books.


  1. I frequently drive through Dorrington, and never dreamt it had a link (even indirect) to Emma Lathen!

    1. Her fathers adoptive father lived two doors down from Horseshoes, it appears!

  2. By Hook or By Crook is my favourite of the Lathens, I think it has everything a crime story should have. And it was fascinating to read all the extra info you dug out - great bit of research.