(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

A steady diet of Emma Lathen novels may not qualify readers for business degrees, but it would be a highly entertaining way to be instructed in the ways of the financial world. Since the first novel, Banking on Death, introduced the powerful senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, the third largest bank in the world, delighted readers have followed John Thatcher and his efficient and knowledgeable band of associates into the intricacies of the fast-food business, cocoa trading, Greek and Puerto Rican politics, grain business with the Soviet Union, the second-home development industry, hockey games, the Winter Olympics, the auto industry, college boards, and the development of tomato hybrids.

Complex and potentially confusing subjects such as these are so skillfully woven into the classic pattern of detective novels that Lathen has been acclaimed as the “best living American writer of detective stories” by the writer C. P. Snow and “the most important woman in American mystery” by the Los Angeles Times. The Lathen novels are indeed classically constructed, though not so much in the tradition of American hard-boiled fiction, with its dark underside, but rather more in the tradition of British Golden Age fiction. The pattern of such detective novels is also the pattern of classic comedy. Defined broadly, the ritual pattern starts with a society in disorder; the underlying impulse driving the plot is the need to restore harmony in the community, a function that, in a detective novel, is undertaken by the detective figure.

This underlying pattern structures a Lathen novel, in which John Thatcher is drawn, sometimes against his will, into the investigation of a murder. Because the Lathen specialty is to show some aspect of the world of big business gone awry, Thatcher is particularly well qualified to put together pieces of financial information from various sources. Thatcher becomes embroiled in a case not only because he represents the Sloan and its investments but also because he has considerable experience with people’s behavior and motivations and because he is curious. Having carefully observed and weighed the significance of what he has witnessed, he has a moment of insight when the pieces fall together; thereupon, he puts the mighty forces of the Sloan to work, gathering more information to validate his insight. The cause of the disorder, the murderer, is discovered and rooted out, and social order is restored. After the guilty party is disposed of, Thatcher and the rest of the innocents gather to thrash out the details of the complex causes that led to the murder.

Lathen novels, while developing in such a classic pattern, depict a wide variety of people, classes, and issues. Lathen plays scrupulously fair with readers by limiting the number of suspects and by providing enough information for readers to draw their own conclusions. Though the criminal element is usually a member of an elite class, the canvas of a Lathen novel can be very broad; its community can be any part of the world, any level of society affected by a particular business, because the invisible thread that ties the whole world together is money. Lathen takes an unalloyed pleasure in the vagaries of money, in its power to travel to far-flung places, to seep into every crevice and crack of political and social institutions, to tangle together races, cultures, and ideologies in its universal web. Therefore, every novel begins with a specific reference to Wall Street, the heart of any big business:Above all, Wall Street is power. The talk is of stocks and bonds, of contracts and bills of lading, of gold certificates and wheat futures, but it is talk that sends fleets steaming to distant oceans, that determines the fate of new African governments, that closes mining camps in the Chibougamou.

Lathen invariably incorporates vignettes of the common folk affected by financial upheavals, the plucky, hardworking men and women whose hopes, dreams, and livelihoods hang in the balance. When an arrogant member of the privileged class decides in desperation to protect his status in his community by randomly poisoning the batter mix used in a national fried-chicken franchise, for example, the Sloan becomes involved because it has twelve million dollars at stake. Lathen also takes her readers, however, to Willoughby, New Jersey, to see how this devastates Vern Ackers and Dodie Ackers, whose life savings, invested in the Chicken Tonight franchise, appears to be lost when the nation in a panic quits buying chicken in any form (Murder to Go, 1969). When the mighty Vandam Nursery and Seed Company’s patent...

(The entire section is 1900 words.)