Emma Lathen: Right on the Money

This short essay was written in 1997, for the program book for the Malice Domestic convention where Emma Lathen (Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart) was honored with a lifetime achievement award.

My fantasy right now is that Emma Lathen is named to head the Federal Reserve. Doesn't "irrational exuberance" sound more like Lathen than Greenspan? Is there anyone who understands -- and can explain -- American business as well as she can? Wouldn't our monetary policy make more sense with Lathen in charge? Or maybe I should be wishing for a Congressional representative as earnest and decent as Ben Safford? You'd think that his take on fundraising and consorting with lobbyists (described over 20 years ago in Epitaph for a Lobbyist) would be dated, but it's in fact remarkably relevant to today's election process. Of course, the current fad for term limits and/or just booting out the incumbents would long ago have doomed Ohio Democrat Safford to retirement. Fortunately, in mystery fiction, there are no term limits, and we have Emma Lathen and R.B. Dominc's terrific body of work to enjoy forever.

Emma Lathen and R.B. Dominic are both pseudonyms of Mary Jane Latsis, an economist, and Martha Henissart, a lawyer. Their remarkable collaboration began with 1961's Banking on Death, under the Lathen pseudonym, and continues with Brewing Up a Storm, the recently published twenty-fourth mystery to feature Wall Street banker John Putnam Thatcher. Along the way, they published seven novels under the Dominic name, from 1968 to 1984, all featuring the Ohio congressman. I'm a little more fond of the Lathens than the Dominics, but both series are delightful treasures.

Comparisons to Jane Austen are thrown around all too frequently, but Emma Lathen's work clearly deserves to be regarded in Austen's light. Lathen's prose is pointed and witty, full of droll observations about the workings of business. A potential client for Thatcher's Sloan Guaranty Trust is described "an exceedingly dubious operation that purported to see fortunes to be made in secondary oil recovery despite their almost endearing lack of capital"; another proposal draws this evaluation: "While we are interested in your model for estimating supply, we at the Sloan still feel that demand plays a part in price changes." Lathen also demonstrates a sure understanding of how things work: after being appointed to a committee, a colleague asks Thatcher what they're supposed to do; Thatcher replies: "We're not supposed to do anything. We wait for something to happen. Then everybody blames us. That keeps the principals in the clear."

The immediate concerns of business may change from day to day, but its fundamental workings do not. As a result, Lathen's work has a surprisingly timeless quality. Death Shall Overcome -- among Lathen's finest books -- was published in 1966. The novel follows the first application by a black man for seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Today, that question is settled, but the problems, the personalities and the tactics that Latsis and Henissart described over thirty years ago are still with us today.

Partisans of the hardboiled novel like to think of that subgenre as the uniquely American form of crime fiction, but I think that overlooks Lathen's contribution. After all, what could be more American than fiction that celebrates this country's greatest institutions (a banking system and a system of government that are the envy of the world) and its most enduring values (capitalism and democracy)? At a time when cynicism runs rampant, Emma Lathen's work offers a refreshing reminder of the positive (and even progressive) side of the way America works. Latsis and Henissart's grace and humor insure that their work will endure.