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Mystery Monday Review – Death Shall Overcome

Death Shall Overcome by Emma Lathen

 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

A major firm throws Wall Street into a tizzy when it announces its plans to appoint a black millionaire to a seat on the stock exchange. At the reception for the prospective partner, an existing partner, an old-school racist, is poisoned. John Putnam Thatcher, the investment banker series hero of the series, must find the perp to prevent trouble on the Street.

I admit a topical book from 1966 is a hard sell in our year of 2015.

Heaven knows when we post-moderns read about race relations in our childhoods, we’re ever ready to cringe at inevitable outdated terms and attitudes, expressed by either the characters or the author. Mercifully, Lathen’s tone is serious – she assumes civil rights as a given. She describes the besieged black candidate as “a replica of a Wall Street financier with a dark skin.” Like other sons of old money, he gives, “the impression of integrity, reliability, and conservatism. A man of property at every point. In a happier era he might have been a Republican.” Lathen implies that only members of the lunatic fringe would oppose his candidacy and that their fussing and fighting interfere with the real business of Wall Street – spinning money.

Lathen satirizes black civil rights activists and their mouthpieces in the media. For limousine liberals, there is an NAACP rally and a banquet at Lincoln Center. There is a very funny march on Wall Street by the Colored Association of Shareholders (CASH). The march is led by black writer based on – well, I will let you guess:

Mr. Simpson, noted for his simpleminded and successful novels about an expatriate in Paris and his relationship with a sylphlike busboy, had the resonant voice of an actor and firm grip on the microphone thrust before him.

Gotta be James Baldwin – and that “simpleminded” burns. Giovanni’s Room, about a white American expat in Paris and his affair with an Italian bartender, was a lot of things, but it wasn’t simpleminded. But overall, genuinely cringe-worthy moments were avoided. Lathen comes off as the kind of Rockefeller Republican that Goldwater dismissed as “dimestore New Deal.”

Another anti-Lathen argument is that she scants the mystery side of things. The reveals are fairly routine. I defend Lathen with the contention that they are not interested in the mystery so much as the characters in milieu of American high finance. We see this milieu through the eyes of banker John Putnam Thatcher, who can laugh at the absurd aspects of the situations in which he finds himself while he stoically does his duty to his bank and his own integrity. The recurring characters are satisfying. Charlie Trinkam charms the birds from the trees, Everett Gabler plays the Doubting Thomas, and Tom Robichaux stands in as the epicure with impossibly gorgeous trophy wives. Even Thatcher’s secretary, Miss Corsa, has her moments while she disapproves, silently yet eloquently, of the jams Thatcher finds himself in that take him from his work.

So, readers that don’t mind period pieces will find satisfying characterization and witty dialogue in the Lathen mysteries. Her world view is dry and wry. And like Perry Mason is the lawyer we wish really existed, John Putnam Thatcher is the Wall Street magnifico we wish worked on Wall Street. Between 1962 and 1997 (when Latsis passed away), the Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart, attorney-banker and economic analyst respectively, wrote as many as 24 novels featuring Thatcher’s adventures.

 

 

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