Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Banking on Death: Emma Lathen

Why did I reread this book? Because the John Putnam Thatcher series by Emma Lathen is one of my favorite series of mystery novels. And why now? Because the story is set around Christmas. Very little of the story relates to Christmas, but I did enjoy all the references to Christmas, some of which I will share here.

John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice president and director of the trust department of Sloan Guaranty Trust, is the protagonist of this series totaling 24 books. Most of the books are focused on one type of business that is using the services of the Sloan, and the story shares many facts about the running of the specific types of businesses. But in this first book, the focus is on the business of the Sloan, the third largest bank in the world. And the issue that starts the story is a query into the status of a small trust that the Sloan has been managing for close to thirty years.

The Sloan has been approached because a trust will soon be dispersed due to the expected death of the last living child of the man who set up the trust. The grandchildren who will benefit from the trust are trying to locate one of the heirs, who has not been heard of for many years. When the lost heir, Robert Schneider, is located, he has been dead for two weeks. There are many suspects, some in the business that the heir worked for, others among the family members who will get his portion of the trust. Why does the Sloan get involved? Because Robert Schneider has children and the institution has a responsibility to protect the rights of all the potential beneficiaries. And because Thatcher enjoys a puzzle and can't let it go.


The story starts a few weeks before Christmas but really gets moving on Christmas eve, at a lunch with Tom Robichaux, where Thatcher makes the connection between two firms that produce industrial textiles, one of which employs the missing heir.
Neither sentiment nor business prompted Thatcher and Robichaux to eat a protracted lunch at the Harvard Club each December twenty-fourth. They were merely avoiding the dislocations that the preparation of inevitable Christmas festivities at their respective institutions entailed. And, if possible, parts of the festivities themselves; Robichaux because he preferred to conduct a strenuous social life in more appropriate surroundings, Thatcher because he found office parties embarrassing and somehow pathetic.
Later there is a brief description of the Christmas holiday that each continuing character at the Sloan experienced. My favorite is Miss Corsa's holiday.
For example, Rose Theresa Corsa was forced to sandwich into thirty hours an incredible number of activities. She participated in an office party, every detail of which had to be recounted to two younger sisters; she attended midnight Mass; she rendered prodigious culinary assistance to her mother; she sat down with a large group of relatives to a high holiday feast which stubbornly combined all the elements of classical Neapolitan cookery with those of a traditional American Christmas Day dinner; and she reviewed the day's events with her closest friend, Maria Angelus. The result of this hilarious round of activity was that she failed to prepare her wardrobe for the following day and arrived at her office one hour late for the first time in four years.
I don't usually care for mystery plots featuring amateur sleuths, and finally I have discovered why this series works for me. In Whodunit?: A Who's Who in Crime & Mystery Writing by Rosemary Herbert, John Putnam Thatcher is described as a prime example of the surrogate detective.
The term “surrogate detective” is applied to characters who solve crimes yet who are neither amateur nor professional detectives. Like the accidental sleuth, the surrogate sleuth may simply have stumbled upon the crime scene, but whereas the accidental sleuth acts out of pluckiness or sometimes self-defense in order to prove who committed the crime, the surrogate sleuth feels compelled to act by applying expertise that he or she brings to the situation.
Thatcher fits this definition by virtue of his financial expertise, and he can often connect motives and behavior to business practices. Other examples are sleuths with a related knowledge of science, and journalists who can gain access to characters.

Emma Lathen's novels are often described as "dated" and this one is especially so, since it was published in 1961. When Thatcher wants to find out information about a death in another city, he sends someone on his staff to the Library to borrow all the papers for that city over the requested time frame. Certainly the world is much different now. Instead of typewriters we have computers and the internet makes information much more readily available. Secretaries have now been replaced by Administrative Assistants, acknowledging the importance of the service they provide. I would not say I want to go back to these times at all. But I like to read books, and especially mystery novels, written in earlier times. Offices, living conditions, and attitudes of the 60s, 70s and 80s are interesting. The John Putnam Thatcher series span several decades, starting in 1961 and ending in 1997, showing a progression.

I loved this book. It had been years since I had read it, and I was surprised that this first book in the series was so good. Like the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe series, all the main characters are well-defined from the beginning of the series. This book had all of the wonderful qualities that I remember, and introduces many continuing characters (Tom Robichaux, Charlie Trinkham, Ken Nicolls, Miss Corsa).  Although it is Thatcher that holds the story together in each book, the viewpoint moves from character to character, giving the reader a broad picture of the plot. Even minor characters are vividly described. To top it off, this book had a very satisfactory ending.


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Publisher:   Pocket Books, 1975 (orig. pub. 1961)
Length:      193 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       John Putnam Thatcher, #1
Setting:      New York
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.


20 comments:

  1. Looks like I’m going to have to start scouting out this series Tracy!

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    1. You should try one, Peggy. I am sure you would like it. I will look around, this might be a series that I have duplicate copies of some of the books and I could send you one to try.

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  2. That's really interesting, Tracy, about the surrogate sleuth. Hmm.....there are lots of sleuths like that out there, too. And I can see why you're such a fan of this series; I always thought it was well-written. And John Putnam Thatcher is an interesting character.

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    1. Yes, Margot, I thought was interesting too. Thatcher is the type of person you don't want to be around because there is sure to be a murder when he shows up, but at least his getting involved is somewhat plausible.

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  3. I've been thinking of reading some of these books for years. I think I was put off by them being written by two people - but it seems it works.

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    1. Katrina, I recommend anyone who likes mysteries try this series at least once. It is amazing how well the two authors wrote together.

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  4. I love this series, Tracy, and have read all of them, many more than once. I particularly like Murder to Go. Yes, they are so well-written, the characters are well-drawn and there is a dry wit that is very entertaining,

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    1. I agree, Christine. Now I am planning to reread one or two from each decade to see how much they change. Although I may start with the last two books because I haven't read those at all.

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  5. Glad it was good - have never actually read anything by them. Always nice to having something to look forward to!

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    1. I hope you try one of the books in this series someday, Sergio. I would love to know what you think of them.

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  6. I didn't realize there were so many books in the series! I read most of them when I was much younger, and now I pick one up now and again and always really enjoy it. I think I have Murder to Go lined up, because Chrissie recommended it to me, as she did to you above!

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    1. Moira, most of my Emma Lathen books are buried in a box in the garage but luckily Murder to Go is out and accessible, as are the last two books. So I will be reading those in the next few months.

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  7. Glad you enjoyed this one, but I doubt I'll be tracking it or any of the others down. In truth I would probably enjoy it, but it's just not singing out to me.

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    1. I am sure that there are some of the Thatcher books that you would enjoy, Col, but you have enough books to keep you busy.

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  8. No. No. Nononononononono! Banks, bankers and banking are anathema to me (probly why the idea of Willie Sutton amuses me so much). I hate to admit even having enjoyed your review, Tracy, but, as usual, I did!

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    1. So you don't like bankers, Mathew. I confess to Thatcher being an unlikely hero for me too, but the books are so good I cannot resist them.

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  9. TracyK: Thanks for a fine review. I read almost all the books in the 1970's through the 1990's and enjoyed them. I thought of John Putnam Thatcher (it was always the three names in my mind) as the epitome of a banker. He was absolutely trustworthy with impeccable integrity. You cannot even imagine him engaged in the financial flummery too many bankers engaged in during the past two decades. Probity is an apt word for him. I think it was his character that drew me to him.

    I was glad to hear the series continues to read well.

    I see no book as dated which is true to its era.

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    1. I agree, Bill. It is hard to think of a man in business nowadays with as much integrity as John Putnam Thatcher, but I like to believe in him. And I never understand why people complain about books being dated. They are set in their own time, and for me that is part of their charm.

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  10. I am with Mathew, Tracy, banks and bankers are not for me but somehow your review still makes me want to read this. Also its length (under 200 pages) is a big plus:)

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    1. I agree, neer, short books are very attractive. A lot of the books in this series focus on various businesses, but their relationship to the bank comes into it too, I think.

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