Monday, May 16, 2022

Supremely Criminal: There Is No Justice (1971), by R. B. Dominic (Emma Lathen's Other Pen Name)

There has been a lot of hullabaloo, amply merited, about the Supreme Court lately.  But let's go back a half-century and more to the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the United States was undergoing some of the greatest social turmoil in its history (political assassinations, domestic terrorism, riots, shootings of protestors, etc.), though no one at that time ever ransacked the hallowed halls of Congress, admittedly.  Politically, the country saw, during the years 1968-70, the successful senate filibuster of Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson's nominee for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Abe Fortas, followed by the successive defeats of two Supreme Court nominees for associate justice, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, put forth by Johnson's Republican successor in the White House, Richard M. Nixon.

Abe Fortas was a staunch liberal from Memphis, Tennessee and political crony of Lyndon Johnson whom the president with the senate's confirmation had already elevated to the Supreme Court as an associate justice in 1965 when, three years later, he was nominated by Johnson to succeed retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren.  The nomination was filibustered by a combination of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats, forcing Johnson to withdraw the nomination.  

During the next year, 1969, it emerged that Fortas had accepted, when his friend Johnson was still president, a lifetime $20,000 dollar annual retainer (about $150,000 today), which would go to his wife, a prominent tax attorney at his death, from Wall Street financier Louis Wolfson, who was under investigation for securities violations.  Faced with this ethical scandal, Fortas resigned from the Court in 1969.  

Fortas' seat was destined to remain unfilled for nearly a year, however.  Richard Nixon's first nominee, native South Carolinian federal judge Clement Haynsworth, was voted down in the senate 45-55 on ideological grounds (and to some extent as payback to Republicans for the Fortas filibuster).  

In January 1970, Nixon nominated another conservative southern judge, G. Harrold Carswell of Florida, for the position.  Nixon and his team thought they had hit on a sure thing in the form of the fifty-year-old Carswell, a judgerly-looking family man.  He looked kind of like a better-looking cross between actor Fred Gwynne's iconic Alabama judge from the film My Cousin Vinnie and South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, if you can imagine such a thing.  

However, not long after the hearings began, it was discovered that Judge Carswell, when running for the Georgia state legislature in 1948, had made a speech declaring his firm devotion to racial segregation and "white supremacy."  (I suppose this is the sort of thing you aren't supposed to teach schoolchildren about today.)  When questioned by the press, Carswell disavowed those expressed sentiments, but coupled with his high reversal rate, said to have been 40%, this revelation effectively torpedoed the Carswell nomination, which went down in the senate 45-51.  

G. Harrold Carswell gets sworn in as a 
Florida federal district judge in 1958.
He would not make it onto the US
Supreme Court 12 years later, though he
would often make newspaper headlines--
highly embarrassing ones--
during the Swinging Seventies.

Democratic senator George McGovern of South Dakota, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, bitingly declared that Judge Carswell's record was distinguished by two things: "racism and mediocrity."  To the mediocrity charge veteran Republican senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska infamously responded: "Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers.  They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?"  

I was born in South Dakota, a state that borders Nebraska, and I recall my Dad telling me about this stupid Republican senator from the Cornhusker state who had pronounced that mediocre people deserve like representation.  Finally President Nixon was able to get a nominee to the seat confirmed, this being Judge Harry Blackmun of Minnesota, a liberal Republican who three years later would author the 7-2 Roe V. Wade abortion decision, about to be overturned by the conservative majority on our current Supreme Court, after having stood for forty-nine years.  

Meanwhile Judge Carswell, who attributed his defeat to "the dark evil winds of liberalism," in 1970 resigned from the judicial bench to run for the Republican nomination for the US senate race in Florida but was decisively beaten in the GOP primary.

Six years later in 1976 Carswell would again make national headlines when he was arrested and charged with battery and attempting "to commit an unnatural and lascivious act" upon a young vice squad policeman in a men's room at a Tallahassee shopping mall.  

Carswell, a husband of nearly three decades who had four now adult children, threatened suicide on his arrest and he was hospitalized for nervousness and depression, later refusing upon his release to discuss the case. Ultimately he pled no contest to the battery charge, the charge of having attempted to commit an "unnatural act" with another man having been dropped; and he was fined $100.  

The next year year it was reported that Tallahassee society had loyally rallied round Carswell and his attractive, photogenic family, feeling that they had been much ill-used by politicians and press of late.  Tallahassee, it was stated, was "behind them 100%."

Unfortunately Tallahassee's tolerance was further tested when, two years later in 1979, Carswell put himself in jeopardy yet again.  During an overnight stay by Carswell at the Omni International Hotel in Atlanta, a bearded, curly-haired young white man, whom Carswell had invited up to his hotel room after the two had met on the street outside the hotel skating rink around 1:30 a.m., badly beat up the former judge, viciously striking him at least four times on the head with a heavy object.  

Police, whom the battered and bleeding Carswell had called to the scene of the crime at 2:08 a.m., after the young man had fled from the scene, allowed that the former judge had not been robbed, but they refused to speculate to a curious Atlanta press as to what the motive for the young man's attack might actually have been.  Nor did they divulge the nature of the retired judge's one-day trip to Atlanta.  Once recovered from the violent attack, Carswell, it seems, managed to avoid further scandalous headlines until his death from cancer in 1992 at the age of 72.  

probably the best of the uninspired
R. B. Dominic dust jackets

When Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart, the two rather clever women who comprised both the mystery writers Emma Lathen and the lesser known R. B. Dominic, sat down to write the third Dominic detective novel, There Is No Justice, probably in the fall of 1970, they could not have known about Judge Carswell's queer shenanigans.  (Although the FBI had investigated rumors in Florida concerning Carswell's sexual proclivities, even poking its nose into the murder of a gay high school teacher of one of Carswell's sons two weeks after Carswell's nomination, they had not passed this information along to the White House.) Nevertheless, the Court obviously had been a mainstay in the news of late, what with the filibuster of Abe Fortas, the Fortas resignation under threat of impeachment and the successive defeats of Haynsworth and Carswell.  

Up to that time, it had been four decades since a nominee to the Supreme Court had been turned down by the senate.  But those years 1968-70 were as contentious as any we have seen as far as Supreme Court confirmations were concerned. 

So it's no wonder that "R. B Dominic," whose seven Congressman Benton Safford mysteries take place among politician in Washington, D. C., set his/her third tale around the nomination of a man to the Supreme Court.  Details from the novel indicate that the real life situation that Dominic most had in mind was the Fortas resignation amid corruption allegations.  Under their Emma Lathen guise, of course, Latsis and Hennissart were famous for their portrayals of murders in the business world and they could never resist the lure of depicting intricate forms of economic hanky-panky, along with garden variety adultery.

Abe Fortas' wife,
prominent tax attorney
Carolyn Agger

In Justice the Supreme Court nominee is one Coleman Ives, a highly-respected liberal Republican lawyer and former federal commissioner who looks sure to breeze his way though the confirmation process, despite the Democrats being in a majority in the senate.  However, there is a spoke in the wheel in the form of young, progressive Democrat Gus Dykstra, the junior senator from Connecticut.  (Was he based on newly elected liberal Republican Lowell Weicker?)

Senator Dykstra demands a full investigation into Ives' record as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission and his activities in his private law firm, in which Ives' wife Pauline is also a partner.  When Dykstra is shot and killed while jogging in DC's Rock Creek Park, naturally the police take a look at Ives, but he seemingly has an airtight alibi: he was spending the night at his love nest in New York City with his beautiful, though seemingly utterly vapid, mistress Neva, wife of Emmett Torrance, a young assistant White House press secretary. 

This is a double-edged sword, however, for when news gets out about Neva, there is pressure on Coleman Ives to drop out of consideration for the Court.  Yet the stubborn Ives determinedly presses on, until--well, read it and see for yourself.

I don't believe I have ever read an American mystery set in DC before.  (I never read the mysteries of  Margaret Truman, or whoever it was ghosted the books for her, though oddly enough I did read an Anne Morice mystery set there.)  So Justice was kind of interesting in that respect, with its reference to the Watergate apartments (the Torrances have a small place there) and Rock Creek Park, where intern Chandra Levy was infamously murdered 21 years ago, seemingly implicating (falsely) her older congressman boss and boyfriend, Gary Condit.  Despite how hard crime writers try, truth often remains stranger than fiction.

Abe Fortas and his bud LBJ

Dominic obviously conceived Colman and Pauline Ives as a gentile version of power couple Abe Fortas and his prominent tax attorney wife, Carolyn Agger.  But absent that topical interest, Justice is a good, solid mystery, with a deceptively simple solution (once you know it) in the grand Christie manner--or perhaps I should say the grand Lathan manner!  

Why did the Dominic series--which numbered seven books, published between 1968 and 1983--never take off like the Lathen one?  I have theories!

1. R. B. Dominic as a pen name is BO-ring!  How on earth did the ladies come up with this one--and why?

2. The series characters are pallid compared to those in Emma Lathen. 

Ohio Democratic Congressman Ben Safford, a  likeable middle-aged bachelor who just happens to get involved in murder mysteries, is an obvious stand-in for Emma Lathen's magnificent John Putnam Thatcher, but Thatcher is sui generis.  Nor did any of Safford's supporting cast of politicos stand out like those in the Lathen series.  

3. The business world is more to fun to read about than the political one--we get enough of politics in real life.

4. The jacket designs of the Dominic books are quite exceptionally unattractive, plus the books were only ever reprinted in paperback by the minor Canadian press Paperjacks--poorly made books that you can't read without badly creasing the spines.

Still, I found There Is No Justice a good mystery and I would happily read another one of Dominic's books.  Certainly the title is as topical as ever!  The skeletons in its closets may not rattle quite so disturbingly as the real thing--there's no conservative family man desperately cruising public restrooms and thoroughfares for street trade to scratch his hidden itch--but maybe that's a good thing.  We get enough of real life from real life.


  1. That term "liberal Republican" almost knocked me off my chair. Hard to believe such a thing ever existed.

    1. Honestly. We're having primaries on PA and NC today and the big debate among Republicans is who is most like Trump. I suppose Susan Collins is what passes for a liberal Republican these days. It was very different fifty years ago. Of course in the South you had conservative Democrats, the Dixiecrat types, kind of like Joe Manchin times fifteen or so. I suspect Emma Lathen ladies themselves were moderate Democrats. they spread the net of their satire pretty wide. Can only imagine what they would say about today though!

  2. This morning, I've just been looking through your series of posts about the Latsis/Hennissart combine (aka Emma Lathen/R. B. Dominic).
    I got into mysteries while I was in high school - the mid-to-late Sixties.
    The first Emma Lathen novel I read was Murder Against The Grain: the prologue (the news stories about the trade treaty) sold the book to me, and the satirical side trips sent me in search of the other books (thank God for paperbacks, and the Walgreen and Kresge stores that carried them!).
    The Thatcher stories were among my favorite bus-commute reading during the early Seventies (along with other classic mysteries in 50 cent paperbacks).
    In the Seventies, I became sufficiently employed to buy hardcover books, which usually went for about five dollars a pop; at the Kroch & Brentano bookstores in Chicago, I first saw There Is No Justice by R. B. Dominic: the Supreme Court angle caught, so I bought the book - having no notion about the Lathen connection ( totally unknown at the point).

    The early '70s were the period of the TV mystery 'wheel' series, which attracted movie stars to try short series to keep the checks coming in.
    I liked to "cast" the various mysteries I read for possible wheel use and the Lathen/Dominic mysteries seemed to be ideal candidates for such use; sadly, that didn't happen ...
    (I seem to recall that a possible "Thatcher" series was mentined as a potential project, but never got past the talking stage; it happens.)

    Well, that was then.
    All these years afterwards, I still have all the books, both Lathen and Dominic (the cover prices on the older ones give me pause these days), and the thought of What Might Have Been makes me just a bit regretful ...

    So much for Nostalgia.
    Thanks for the forum to spout off in.

  3. Thanks, I love trips down memory lane personally, I got my PhD in history after all! Even though I was just a preteen I was getting those Pocket paperbacks back in the 1970s too, though they were Agatha Christies. I never really knew about other mystery writers, besides Erle Gardner and Ellery Queen, who didn't interest me (though I liked the EQ mystery series).

    Emma Lathen I didn't read until the 1990s, when she was still doing some new ones. About a decade the surviving partner, Martha Henissart, said she still had ideas pop into her head, but she was not goign to write again. I would have loved to have gotten their take on the Obama-Trump era!

    I hope you found all the older reviews using the search box. I think this is the seventh book by them I have reviewed, which may well make them the most reviewed authors on the blog. I still have plenty by them left to read.

    I'm actually surprised there never was a film deal, they were very popular in those paperback editions in the 1970s, in both the US and UK. Those old pbs are still relatively easy to find on the used market.

    Paul Newman might have made a good Thatcher in the 1990s. Or how about Spencer Tracy in the 1960s, wow! Donald Moffatt, who died a few years ago, would have been good, he always seemed very old "New England" to me. Maybe someday! As you may have noticed, however, the literary estate seems to be in the hands of an odd character....

  4. I read Emma Lathen's books for the simple reason that they were published in the UK by Gollancz Although I differ on the qualities of fiction with the late Victor (he did not like Patricia Highsmith), his line in crime fiction (and SF) was excellent and easy to spot in libraries having bright yellow dustjackets. R B Dominic was published by Macmillan. Spotty editorial taste + dull jackets meant I missed them. I will find some, just to see what I missed.

    1. Yes, I think the wretched jackets did not help. But like Jon Breen has said, you can tell it's the same clever, witty author!