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Mystery Monday Review – Pick Up Sticks

Pick Up Sticks by Emma Lathen

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Emma Lathen was the pen-name for two Boston businesswomen , Mary J. Latsis and Martha Hennissart. Their entertaining mystery series blended Wall Street characters with either blue collar crimes or white collar schemes that lead up to a murder or two. Their novels were solid sellers from 1961 to 1997 (when Ms. Latsis passed away).

The series hero is John Thatcher Putnam, who is a VP at the Sloan Bank. In these Seventies and Eighties novels he is senior enough to remember the 1929 crash and not be surprised at anything the Street gets up to. He’s as sharp as a tack, though, a keen observer and rational thinker. Follow the money. Who benefits? He’s that rarity in any walk of life: somebody who combines knowledge of how money works with how human beings tick.

In this one, first published in 1970, the authors mildly satirize the real-estate business, specifically the hard-sell techniques relentlessly aimed at potential buyers thinking of a second home in the country or on a lake. Our hero is hiking the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire with his busy-body buddy Henry Morland. They run into a young couple who have gotten lost because they have wandered away from a housing development Fiord Haven, although it is nowhere near the sea. After Henry and John realize the couple can’t tell east from west, Henry goes to get help. Henry returns with two state policemen who are severely interested in a quartet that were around when a murdered body was discovered.

Henry is an enthusiast so he is bent on finding the killer. John is less so. The contrast between the two as they interview persons of interest is pretty funny. Lathen examines the personality of the victim, concluding that such an obnoxious guy would exasperate a saint. His first wife observes that he always took the side of the exploited underdog but always let her do the dishes. Such were the thrusts and jabs readers of a certain age will fondly remember from the women’s liberation movement circa 1970.

Explaining too much of the action would spoil the mystery. So I will only recommend this one as highly as I have others by Emma Lathen (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Certainly the business environment has changed. But the three doors to hell – anger, lust, and good old greed – have not changed though they do get repainted in colors that go in and out of fashion. And Lathen’s witty writing style still stands up, besides providing unwittingly nostalgic asides for readers who think 40 is young.




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