Sunday, November 28, 2021

Buffaloed: Banking on Death (1961), by Emma Lathen

a balmy day in Buffalo

Like Athena from Zeus' head, John Putnam Thatcher sprang forth fully formed when sixty years ago this December Emma Lathen (Mary Jane Latsis and Matha Hennisart) published Banking on Death (1961), their first mystery novel about the canny senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust.  So too did spring forth the authors copious talents as mystery fiction writers.  

In this first one by them it's all there: the drily witty narration, the authority on business detail and the impeccable plotting.  It's probably as good as any other book in the series, although some may miss the higher satirical flights of, say, Death Shall Overcome (1966) and Murder against the Grain (1967),both of which S. S. Van Dine probably would have condemned for "literary dallying."  Even Van Dine couldn't have had a problem with Banking on Death, however; at about 70,000 words it's a lean and superb example of the classic detective novel.  I particularly liked how one clue was waved in front of my face and I still didn't see it.  Clever misdirection.

In 1994 Banking on Death was
another entry in Otto Penzler's
short-lived Classic American 
Mystery Library series, which 
also included S. S. Van Dine's
Gracie Allen Murder Case

Initially Banking on Death seems like it's going to be one of those "missing heir" cases, but things soon turn out differently when said heir turns up dead.  At the Sloan in New York City John Thatcher is cornered by Arthur Schneider, President of the Schneider Manufacturing Company of Framingham, Massachusetts (makers of felts and industrial textiles), who wants to discuss the matter of his black sheep cousin, Robert, of whom the family lost slight of fifteen years ago, not long after the end of World War Two.  

With the imminent death of Arthur's Aunt Hilda, the trust will wind down, but the whereabouts and fate of Robert must be determined for the distribution to be made to the younger generation of surviving family members, which includes, besides Robert and Arthur, Arthur's sister, Grace, and Arthur's other cousin, Martin Henderson, who heads the firm's New York City sales branch.

Thatcher soon discovers Robert--he has been bludgeoned to death at his apartment in Buffalo, New York!

At his recent demise Robert was serving as vice president of the Buffalo Industrial Products Corporation.  Robert had made good, yet he was disliked by seemingly everyone, including other officers in the company and even his own estranged wife.  Even though the Schneider family trust is managed at the Sloan by young Kenneth Nicholls, the inquisitive Thatcher soon is actively involved trying to determine just who bumped off Robert and why.  (Nicholls becomes Thatcher's dogsbody.)  

It's a complicated question, to be sure, with a cast of suspects residing not only in Buffalo and Framingham but New York and Washington, D. C.  On the night Robert was murdered, Buffalo was being hit by a major snowstorm, so a most interesting question of alibis concerning planes and snow-tired automobiles is raised, one Freeman Wills Crofts surely would have adored.  

On its publication critical enthusiasm for the novel was pronounced.  In the New York Times Anthony Boucher praised the "interestingly unpleasant characters and agreeable love story [one-half of which is composed of Kenneth Nicholls"], as well as the "sound" and "well-clued" "murder puzzle," before concluding: "Miss Lathen is a find."  (I'm surprised that was never used on book blurbs.)

In the UK the frequently misogynistic Francis Iles lauded Banking on Death, though not without taking a broadside of critical obiter dicta at American women writers of what today is dubbed "domestic suspense":

[Emma Lathen's first novel] is head and shoulders above the usual rather dreary and deadly portentous American female crime-writers' syndicate. (There are some half a dozen of them but I say they must be a syndicate becaise any of their books might have been written by any one of them.)  this is a good story, well told, with a good background of banking and bug business, good characterisation, and even signs of humour.

Lathen would go on the write a total two dozen John Thatcher detective novels, finally shutting down with the untimely death of Mary Jane Latsis in 1997.  Nineteen of them appeared between 1961 and 1982, and another five, perhaps a bit antiquated by then, between 1988 and 1997.  The series never really changed to speak of (although at some point women became something other than wives, daughters and secretaries), providing readers with civilized and intelligent mystery entertainment for nearly four decades.  Certainly Emma Lathen was never drearily portentous and deadly dull.

PS: I had read this novel back in the 1990s, but I had forgotten that we learn here that John Thatcher was born in the villager of Sunapee, New Hampshire and served in the First World War.  He's widowed with a married daughter named Laura.  I don't believe we ever learn too much more about him.  Francis Iles probably approved of all this personal reticence.

See also my reviews of:

A Stitch in Time (1968)

By Hook or By Crook (1975)

Double, Double, Oil and Trouble (1978)

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review. 🙂 Will there be a reprint of this clever puzzler anytime soon?

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  2. This and several other Emma Lathen books can be found on the Open Library website. "Accounting for Death" is a must-read for anyone interested not only in a cracking good mystery, but a thorough exploration of how businesses ran BC (Before Computers). https://openlibrary.org/authors/OL2631563A/Emma_Lathen

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  3. They have been reprinted, but I've written about my dubiousness of the publisher here:

    http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2018/01/simply-troubling-mystery-of-new-emma.html#:~:text=Simply%20Troubling%3A%20The%20Mystery%20of%20the%20New%20Emma%20Lathen%20Editions,-Emma%20Lathen%2C%20one&text=During%20much%20of%20her%20writing,corporate%20world%2C%20might%20offend%20clients.

    I don't have any doubt but that Emma Lathen is one of the major Silver Age detective fiction writers, so it's disappointing to me that they weren't reprinted by Otto Penzler, but that's the way it worked out, unfortunately. Of course there's always the used market too. The books went through multiple editions in pb, both in the US and UK.

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  4. One book that really does need a reprint is the first book they wrote under the R. B. Dominic name, Murder Sunny Side Up - copies of this are extremely scarce (it seems never to have been published in the UK).

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    1. I've never read any of the Dominics because those satirize politics and to me politics satirizes itself well enough in real life!

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  5. Love their books. At one point that we do learn that Thatcher is a very good dancer - the tango, I think!

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    1. There's a charming but about him and his grandson in one of the books too. But happily we never learn, I believe, about Thatcher's post-marriage sex life!

      The more I read Lathen, the more I'm convinced that she was one the most important post-GA writers of true detection.

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    2. I agree - and I like the way that Lathen is so sparing when it comes to details of Thatcher's private life. Murder to Go is one of my favourites.

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    3. It was actually the rumba at which Thatcher was an expert.

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