Emma Lathen Essay - Lathen, Emma

Lathen, Emma

Emma Lathen is the joint pseudonym of Mary J. Latis and Martha Hennisart who write mystery fiction featuring John Putnam Thatcher. C. P. Snow considers Lathen to be "probably the best living American writer of detective stories."

Emma Lathen is a writer of the urbane school, out of Richard Lockridge and (in a curious kind of way) Dorothy Sayers. Her banker-detective John Putnam Thatcher of Sloan Guaranty, never raises his voice, observes events with amused detachment, and seldom becomes emotionally involved with the cases he is called upon to solve. Lathen's dialogue is bright, observant and just this side of cutesy.

It is a pleasant world that Thatcher inhabits, and murder is only a passing, mildly irritating aberration. Life revolves around the functioning of Sloan Guaranty, and Thatcher is there to help make the function smooth. Lathen is a skillful writer, but this banker-detective remains curiously remote. Subsidiary characters in her books are generally much more lifelike.

Basically, all [of her books] are sentimental, with Good triumphing over Evil, any place, any time, in any circumstances. Her charm lies in the fact that she tells all this in so graceful a manner that criticism is disarmed.

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 26, 1972, p. 42.

[Emma Lathen] has been called [by C. P. Snow] the best living American writer of detective stories, but she has covered her tracks well…. She is a very private person and intends to remain that way…. Emma Lathen is two urban[e], witty, professional women….

Nothing is sacred. They unsheath their swords of sarcasm at the moneyed and powerful, as well as the fuzzy romantics; they ridicule public relations types and angry bearded young men; they distrust astrologers and the news media without bias. While they advocate the control of business, they have a great respect for private enterprise….

[No sex-crazed characters or tawdriness appear in her books.] No cheap thrills from Emma Lathen, thank you. Even her murders are clean—usually a blow over the head with a blunt instrument or a revolver. There is a bit of blood and brains but nothing really messy. The eye doesn't linger long; there are no excruciating murder scenes with meat hooks and the like. Whether it is poison or strangulation or a blow on the head, it is done quickly and neatly as possible.

Kay Holmes, "They Call Her America's Agatha Christie … But Who Is She?," in The Sunday [Detroit] News Magazine, January 21, 1973, pp. 29-31.