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Mystery Monday Review – Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to Ashes by Emma Lathen

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Emma Lathen was the pseudonym for the writing team of Mary J. Latsis and Martha Henissart. From the early Sixties to the Nineties, their series hero was Wall Street banker and amateur sleuth John Putnam Thatcher. The magazine Newsweek described Lathen as “a master plotter, an elegant stylist, a comic genius and a purist who never sacrifices logic for surprise effect.”

In this mystery Ungar Realty, a large developer, is planning to acquire St. Bernadette’s School, a beloved Catholic school in a Queens-like neighborhood of the Big Apple. The deal between the company and archdiocese looks done until the newly formed Parents League protests the closing of the school and files a lawsuit. Then the leader of the activists is found murdered in the group’s headquarters. John Putnam Thatcher, whose bank is financing the deal, is drawn into a complex web of parish intrigue and protest as he tries to identify the perp.

The murder, of course, generates much publicity. The publicity attracts the types that Lathen, both of whom were probably old-style New York Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller, likes to skewer. For instance, horning in on the Parents League protests are liberal Catholics who alienate the working class locals by advocating for the Pill to be distributed to teenaged girls. Also showing up are the Bhagavad Catholics who mix in Hare Krishna with Christianity. There are two action-filled scenes, one a genuine riot and another more peaceful protest at the UN, which brings together Jewish, Arabic, and Catholic folks in mutual support against absentee landlords.

With the Sixties-type activism and the mixed reaction to Vatican II, this 1971 book feels nostalgic for those of us readers born in the Forties and Fifties. But then again it also feels very here and now in light of headlines in my newspaper that say “Ten Catholic elementary schools in —– Diocese are closing, displacing 1,154 students (K-8) and 195 faculty and staff.”


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