EMMA LATHEN – Murder to Go. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1969. Pocket, paperback, September 1971 [the copy I read]. Several later printings.

   Counting A Shark out of Water, which appeared in 1997 and was the final one in the series, there were 24 “Emma Lathen” books in all — all of them featuring John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice-president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, “the third largest bank in the world.”

EMMA LATHEN Murder to Go

   Whether he was ever promoted, I do not know. While I’ve read several of the books in the series over the years, I’d have to say it’s been twenty since last I did, and perhaps even thirty.

   And when I was a young man, what did I know of banking and investments, takeovers and mergers – the stuff, in other words, of the world of finance? Darned near nothing, and that’s reason I back then never did appreciated Thatcher’s adventures in mystery investigation anywhere nearly as well as I should have, I am sure.

   Before I get on any further with this review, let me add right here the fact that Emma Lathen was the byline of two ladies, Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Hennisart. You may be able to discern where the joint pseudonym came from, but from whence their alternative one, R. B. Dominic? (I seem to remember reading about it, and I think it was Jon Breen who uncovered this second identity of theirs, so maybe it was written up somewhere or another.)

   Queries: Is John Putnam Thatcher the first investment banker to be a repeating character in a series of detective stories? Query: Is Murder to Go the first instance of murder (fictional) related to a fast food franchise? (In this case, the Chicken Tonight Corporation.) Is Murder to Go the first fictional mystery involving mass poisoning via a commercial product? (The notorious Tylenol tampering case did not occur until 1982, so in this regard, it seems, the ladies Lathen were well ahead of any real-life case I can think of.)

   It is thus that the first death was accidental. The second, however, is decidedly not, and Thatcher, whose bank has a substantial stake in Chicken Tonight, is squarely in the middle of it.

   Lathen, which is how I will refer to both authors (and as female and in the singular) has a good eye and ear for how people really behave, both in the high echelons of the business world, and the lower – the franchisees who (of course) end up taking the heat – and the loss of business – the most. She also has a subtle “looking down the nose” and (through Thatcher) a non-approving way of looking at many situations, often to me in surprisingly humorous fashion. (Whoever thinks of bankers as stand-up comedians?)

    Here’s a lengthy quote from page 27:

    “This is a honeyfall for printers,” he [Charlie Trinkam, reporting to Thatcher] announced, perching of a corner of the desk. “I understand every restaurant in town has put out a rush order for new menus. Crossing things out isn’t good enough. They don’t want the word chicken mentioned on the premises.”

    “You can’t blame them,” Thatcher replied. He was idly leafing through a report that Everett Gabler, a senior trust officer, had just delivered. “They poison enough customers without external assistance.”

    “Of course,” Charlie continued, “the Chinese restaurants won’t have any trouble at all. They’ll just give their dishes new names and no one will know the difference.”

   In this crisis situation that the head of Chicken Tonight is facing, Thatcher gives him high marks. From page 150:

    Thatcher was beginning to appreciate why Frank Hedstrom had shot to the top in the business world. Understanding money is a rare talent. Understanding people is even rarer. Understanding both is damn near nonexistent.

   As a detective, Thatcher is blessed with both curiosity and a penchant for tidying up loose strings. See page 161 for a longer analysis along these lines. Unfortunately, there is only a small coterie of suspects, and with one of them behaving most curiously out of character, naming the killer is a feat that should be within the grasp of even the leisurely of armchair detectives. Such as myself, I hasten to add, and the rest of the novel is equally if not even more entertaining.

— April 2004