Emma Lathen

 

Emma Lathen was the better known pseudonym of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart who were active from 1962 until the former's death in 1997. They also wrote several mysteries as R.B. Dominic, but were popular primarily for creating John Putnam Thatcher, a senior officer at a major bank who had a penchant for solving crimes.

Thatcher made his debut in Banking on Death (1962). Thatcher becomes interested in a relatively minor trust that involves a family closely connected to the paper products industry. The imminent death of an elderly woman will precipitate the distribution of the trust, but the apparent disappearance of one of the beneficiaries complicates things. Thatcher assigns the investigation to one of his subordinates, but before long they discover that the man in question has recently been murdered. There are a horde of suspects. The dead man was disliked by his co-workers and hated by his boss.  The daughter of the latter was having an affair with him, which obviously didn't endear him to her husband. He also had a wife of his own, although they were estranged, and she had numerous reasons for wishing him dead. On the family side we have a self centered single woman with a penchant for drinking herself into oblivion and no regard at all for others, a manipulative sales manager who has recently made unwise investments and is on the brink of bankruptcy, and the manager of the paper products company, who seems to have no real motive for wanting him dead.  The latter's daughter is also positioned as a possible suspect but she is obviously meant to provide the romantic interest for Thatcher's assistant.  Alibis for everyone are complicated by a massive snowstorm that delayed everyone for hours, which would conveniently mask a sidetrip for homicidal purposes.  The dead man also worked for a rival paper products company although the family claims not to have any idea where he is.

Lathen uses an unusual remote form of investigation. Thatcher works primarily by proxies and the viewpoint shifts among a good many characters. Although this was quite entertaining, it suffers from being too obvious.  The only one who really doesn't seem to have a strong motive is also the only one who does seem to have an alibi, so my suspicions immediately focused on the business manager. When it is revealed that the victim was on the verge of creating a revolutionary new process that would wipe out the competition, I had motive as well. We aren't really given enough information to detect the flaw in his alibi, but it was obvious that there had to be one and in due course Thatcher stumbles across it, almost by accident.  A good mystery but not a classic.

The dry sense of humor that pops up occasionally in Banking on Death is more in evidence in A Place for Murder (1963). Thatcher is dragooned into helping resolve problems when the bank manager's sister is swept up in a messy divorce. There's a power struggle between her and her husband's new love, a younger woman, over control of the family home, a symbol of prestige more than anything else. And it's no surprise when the young woman turns up dead early in the proceedings. She is survived by an ambitious mother and obnoxious brother, both of whom hoped to gain monetarily from the new marriage, which makes them unlikely candidates as the killer.  The estranged husband, however, has clearly had some second thoughts about his new liaison, which makes him as likely as his presumed soon to be ex-wife. There is also a husband and wife dog handling team who work for the wife, and an outspoken local restaurant owner. They have no apparent motive, but then they wouldn't have. Finally we have the divorcing couple's son, who blames his father for the breakup.  Kenneth Nicolls, who did the legwork for Thatcher in the first book, is at it again and this time he is the one who discovers that the murdered woman was pregnant, and that just perhaps the love affair was not as mutual as first suggested. Then we learn that there was a substantial insurance policy on the dead woman, suggesting that her family may have had a motive after all.

This time no one at all has an alibi since the murder took place during a parade and everyone was scattered about. Further events seem to point toward the wayward husband when his paramour's brother indicates that he wants a private meeting, then ends up murdered in a field on the man's farm. This, of course, suggests to the experienced mystery reader that he is the only one who is certainly innocent. Several people are suppressing information in order to protect someone else, and when they finally reveal what turns out to be rather innocuous, the police are reluctant to believe them in any case. An integral but puzzling part of the mystery is a set of antlers which the dead woman was grasping. When the police finally release them, they are promptly stolen, underlining their significance, although it is actually the fact that they can be moved through a crowd unnoticed that is the clue to the fact that the murder did not take place where everyone believed it did. As in the first book, Thatcher figures out the solution after a revelatory experience triggers his deductive powers. I guessed the murderer again this time, but I wasn't nearly as certain as I had been before.

Accounting for Murder (1964) is in the same vein.  A high powered accountant happens to be a stock holder in a large firm whose finances strike him as irregular. He forces an audit, but before he can announced his findings, he is found strangled by the cord to his adding machine. Thatcher is involved because the bank holds some investments. The technical problem is why two plants which manufacture the same profit run at a loss in one case, and a profit in the other.  But when an independent audit is performed, the losing plant is shown to be above board. And why would a criminal arrange things to make more profit for the company instead of himself. There's a reasonably clever explanation for this, although I would have thought the problem would have become obvious much earlier. Pleasant but unexceptional.

Murder Makes the Wheels Go 'Round (1966) switches to the auto industry. Michigan Motors is recovering from a price fixing scam that sent three of their top executives to prison and others into early retirement or job transfers. The three convicted men have just been released and their future is uncertain, and worrisome to people like Thatcher who are contemplating investing in the company.  Then the most prominent of the threesome, Ray Jensen, is found shot and stuffed into the back seat of a presentation car. Jensen, who was expected to become company president, has been upset about the ambivalence about his future with the company, and is also investigating to determine who the anonymous whistleblower was who contacted the government. There's no shortage of people with both motive and opportunity either. There's Wahl, who took Jensen's place and is nervous about being demoted back to his old position. There's Krebbel, the new president, whose plans might be hindered if a fresh scandal erupts. There's Jensen's ex-wife and her lover, another company executive. The other two convicted men also resent Jensen's disregard of their precarious positions, a sentiment shared by their wives, plus the whistleblower who would not want his/her identity revealed, plus other company figures who might be implicated if Jensen revealed all that he knew about the illegal scheme. Thatcher admits that he remains in the vicinity because he is curious rather than professionally involved this time.

Readers who fancy themselves amateur detectives are going to be a bit frustrated here. There are literally no clues to analyze. One can make guesses among the various suspects (and non-suspects) but it's pure guesswork. As the final chapters unfold, the killer could quite clearly be any of the characters, although for dramatic purposes we can safely eliminate the estranged wife and her now incarcerated lover (someone planted the murder weapon in his filing cabinet). They're both much too obvious and Thatcher refuses to believe they're guilty. Although I did guess correctly in this case, it was by considering the way in which Lathen portrayed several characters and choosing the one that was in theory the least likely to be the guilty party. Not a classic mystery, perhaps, but an entertaining one.

Death Shall Overcome (1966) involves efforts to install a black man as a full partner in a Wall Street trading firm, despite opposition ranging from skeptical to openly racist. One of his colleagues is poisoned in what later appears to have been a botched attempt on the new prospect, Parry, and a stroke of luck allows him to escape unscathed when someone fires a rifle at his moving car. The open racist seems to be too obvious a suspect but there are others with reasons to want Parry dead, or to at least embarrass the man proposing his elevation. Much of the middle of the novel has nothing to do with the mystery. When the story of the two murder attempts reaches the newspapers, it sets off a storm of protests, genuine and otherwise, and Thatcher gets drafted into a Wall Street committee to deal with the mess, even though there's little that he can do about it. The sides grow even more polarized amidst some generally humorous episodes but we learn nothing more about motive, method, or opportunity during the fun and games. The unfolding events are amusing and entertaining but the mystery element really doesn't return until quite late in the book, and even then it's more of a revelation out of the blue than anything else. The reader can only guess who the killer is - there are no clues at all to speak of - and I guessed wrong this time. Some of the information that Thatcher uses to reach the solution is concealed from the reader, which is a significant cheat.

Thatcher's bank gets defrauded of nearly a million dollars in Murder Against the Grain (1967), after a forged bill of lading connected to a major wheat sale to the Soviet Union goes awry. The messenger who delivered the check to the crooks apparently knew more than he revealed to the police because he is found murdered in the vicinity of the Russian embassy. The bank representative who approved the check and the merchant who should have received payment both fall under suspicion by the competent police, while various federal agents fall over one another providing the usual comic relief. At least one Russian official also appears to be acting suspiciously, although this might be his natural uneasiness in awkward circumstances. Once again the story is more about the complications of the theft and there are very few clues for the reader, or the police for that matter. I noticed a significant step forward in the prose, however, which flows much more smoothly than in the first few books. The solution involves identifying two people since it is obvious that one person could not have had all of the access and knowledge required.  One half of the criminal team is actually fairly obvious and I knew her identity very early on. Her partner could have been one of several people and while the authors provide Thatcher with some slight evidence to justify his decision, it's pretty spurious. It's still the best Lathen book to date.

Come to Dust (1968) was the most serious in tone and the best constructed mystery that Lathen had yet produced. It opens with the disappearance of an unremarkable man who served as part of the interview committee for a private college. His wife is reluctant to contact the police, but then his car is identified as being involved in a fatal hit and run accident, a $50,000 bearer bond goes missing, and there are fears that he may have embezzled money from his primary employer. Thatcher gets pulled into things somewhat awkwardly and tries to disengage throughout most of the novel. What appears to be a coalescing explanation goes awry when it is discovered that the missing man sold his car shortly before the accident, that he had been planning his disappearance for at least a year, and that he apparently took a number of college records away with him for no discernible purpose. Further complications arise when a document is discovered which lists for of his college classmates, all bachelors, none of whom seem to have any connection. There are also a couple of red herrings, one involving his planned attendance at his class reunion, where rumors of his presence do arise. That's where murder strikes. The last boy to have been interviewed is found stabbed to death in the bed of another of the committee members, who was himself passed out drunk elsewhere, or so he says. I didn't guess the murderer this time, and could not have done so based on the clues although I had concluded it must be one of the three members of the committee. I did figure out the motivation for the disappearance, in part, although there's a twist there that I never saw coming.  The high quality of the previous volume is maintained here.

A Stitch in Time (1968) starts with a legal case involving a man who died after trying to commit suicide. Because there were a number of serious mistakes made by the attending doctor, the man died but the cause of death - and the payment of his insurance policy - is in dispute. The doctor in question is an irascible, irritating person who makes a public nuisance of himself, to the chagrin of his co-workers and others, until he ends up dead in the parking lot, apparently mugged. There are a number of immediate suspects - his apparently doting wife who was set to inherit a considerable amount of money, which is also apparently missing, a former colleague whom he caused to be fired, another who seems to be next on his target list, and other doctors who don't want the adverse attention at the hospital. This last turns out to be more serious than it seems because the dead man and many of his peers were involved in an illegal prescription operation as well as covering up substandard operating procedures at the hospital. His continued erratic behavior would have inevitably brought scrutiny to that operation as well. Although well written, the clue that helps Thatcher solve the murder is displayed early on and is glaringly obvious. There was never any doubt in my mind about the killer's identity.

Murder Sunny Side Up (1968) was the first time the authors used the R.B. Dominic byline.  Since I haven't been able to find a copy of even the paperback that sells for less than $70, I have not read this one.  The second Dominic, Murder in High Places (1969) followed shortly afterward but frankly it was so disappointing that I don't mind missing its predecessor.  Her detective/protagonist this time is a Congressman who becomes involved with the plight of an American student who was kicked out of an imaginary country where she was doing research after pictures were faked showing her acting scandalously. Even though she can prove her innocence, government officials and private sponsors seem oddly unwilling to make an issue of it, and the student also seems to have irritated some members of the foreign government as well. Then a diplomat is pushed out of a window and falls to his death and his involvement with the case, though peripheral, makes the link obvious to the reader. The plot is jumbled and sometimes almost incoherent, the characters are sometimes wildly exaggerated and they come and go so quickly that we can't relate to any of them. Nor is the wittiness of the Thatcher books present. Very disappointing.

When in Greece (1969) is generally considered Lathen's best novel. There is a murder mystery in it, but the story is basically an adventure set against the background of the colonels' coup. One of Thatcher's subordinates, Ken Nicolls, is in Greece preparing for a meeting on a development project when he is arrested by the army after a brief conversation with a stranger - who is promptly murdered. An earthquake sets him free shortly thereafter and he is on the run from parties whose identities he doesn't know.  Another banker is sent to look for him and he is promptly kidnapped off a busy Athens street, which finally provokes Thatcher into traveling to Greece himself to take things in hand, although most of the initiative is provided by others. We alternate among the three bankers, one of whom wanders the countryside from one brief safe haven to another, one of whom outwits and escapes his captors, and Thatcher himself - who enlists the aid of two feisty female archaeologists. The story concludes with a fairly clever plot to trap the murderer, extricate the fugitive, and protect the bank's interests.  This is all handled quite well and if the mystery element is fairly weak, the plot itself is quite lively.

Murder to Go (1969) is about the fast food industry. A chicken delivery chain is targeted by someone who substitutes poison for one of the ingredients on a delivery truck. The driver who physically made the change disappears but shows up later, strangled, in the car of one of the owners of the chain. Suspicious characters include his partner, who disagrees about how the business is going, his wife because she hates playing second fiddle, members of the board of a small insurance company who object to a takeover bid, and the company's main supplier of chickens, who seems to have no motive but who knows that the chain is considering raising their own chickens in the future. Most of the novel involves the internal feuding among the management and their wives, and some peripheral maneuvering with outsiders and their own distributors. This time the solution is accessible to the reader far in advance of Thatcher's insight. In fact, it's a bit too obvious. The killer drops a piece of information he could not possibly have known well in advance and I just assumed he was the guilty party from that point on. Correctly, as it turned out. Not quite up to the standards of the previous couple of books.

Thatcher goes for an extended walk on the Appalachian Trail in Pick Up Sticks (1970), but his companion stumbles across a body and they are diverted to a hard sell real estate promotion at a remote lodge. There they discover that the dead man was dismayed to find that his ex-wife was also present, since there was no love lost between her and his new wife, and there was a custody battle over the first wife's son as well. As the story unfolds we learn that the dead man, Lester, was known to have argued with the project architect for reasons unknown, and that he'd also spent hours walking around the site on his own just prior to his murder. The circumstances of his death seem to indicate no premeditation, an act of impulse. One of the sales managers is also acting strangely, attempting to foment discord between the two wives when it is revealed that Lester died without a will and that the divorced wife's son is probably entitled to part of the estate. No solution seems to be in sight and then one of the realtors is stabbed in the back at another sales pitch and things accelerate toward the conclusion.

The future of a parochial school is at the heart of the issue in Ashes to Ashes (1971). The head of the community group resisting the church's plan to sell the land to a real estate developer is murdered late one night and at first it appears that the only person with a credible motive is the investor. Other potential suspects include an overly ambitious lawyer, a candy store owner who hopes to make a killing if the deal goes through, other members of the protest committee, and a curate whose indignation is disproportionate. Much of the book involves the complications that ensue when outside interests get involved in the issue, and the lawyer's attempts to change the focus of the group to a wider range of changes. Bomb threats and a real bomb follow before Thatcher figures out who is responsible. This is another one where the motive is not revealed until the solution is provided, which is technically cheating, but the story is an amusing one.

The Longer the Thread (1971) is set in a clothing manufacturing plant in Puerto Rico. There has been a rash of sabotage at the plant and management suspects a troublesome supervisor with connections to radical political movements. Thatcher is visiting just as the troublemaker is found murdered in the executive offices, shot through the back of the head, with incriminating evidence on his person. But was he the saboteur or did he discover the real culprit's identity. As with several of the other novels, the story is more about the peripheral events - in this case pragmatism versus political idealism, though stupidly conceived - and there isn't much about the evidence or detection process, or even about the personalities of the major suspects. There is also a growing feud between two members of the management team, one of whom is ostensibly kidnapped by a group of radical students, who are also prime suspects in an arson incident that destroys the company's warehouse. Both of these seemed suspicious to me and I assumed at this point that one of the managers was actually behind both events for reasons as yet unknown, and that the kidnapped man was probably dead. Sure enough, his body turns up a short while later. I had narrowed down the list of suspects to two people and it was one of them, but there was really no way to guess correctly because of withheld information. We know that one of them is looking for another job, but we don't know that the other one is not.

There is No Justice (1971) is an improvement over the previous R.B. Dominic novel. A senator makes a personal vendetta out of finding dirt on a Supreme Court nominee, and is promptly shot to death while jogging. The nominee is outed as an adulterer when love letters to the wife of another man are made public and there are insinuations that he might have been involved in some shady legal dealings as well. His wife stands by him during the scandal, but then he is poisoned at a college graduation and the police suspect that the two men were killed by the same person. Congressman Ben Safford, our protagonist, figures things out right at the end. There's a goof by the second victim that I caught but I couldn't figure out the significance until other information is revealed at the end, although I did correctly identify the murderer, if not the motive. Not bad but still not as good as the Lathen novels, and occasionally rushed, particularly in the opening chapters.

Murder Without Icing (1972) is unusual in that it starts with the murder of the wrong person. Frank Moore was interested in buying a hockey team stake from Win Holland, much to the dismay of his partner, Clemmie Post, but the deal had publicly fallen through when Moore was found shot to death. Holland did owe him money at the time, but it does not appear to have been an unusual or pressing debt and Post was gleeful that the deal had been aborted. On the other hand, some people - notably the players on the hockey team - were not aware that the deal had fallen through and most of them had something to lose if Moore acquired and then moved the team, as he had implied he was planning to do. Then the star player is poisoned, but there seems to be nothing to link the two murders and in fact they seem to have been perpetrated for contradictory reasons.  This time I not only guessed the killer's identity early but I had a pretty good idea what the motive was. It's an okay story but probably a bit below average in overall quality.

Thatcher gets appointed to the board of directors of a large trust fund in Sweet and Low (1974), which in turn is connected to a major candy company. During a get together for the board members, one of them is murdered and thrown into the swimming pool, shortly after arguing with the underling of a prominent employee of the candy company. This one gets off to a slow start and by a third of the way through the book I was still having some trouble differentiating the characters, which is not a good sign.  The politics of the cocoa futures market is explained at length, but not well enough that I completely understood the financial maneuvering which turns out to be the motive for the first and a later follow up murder. I also wondered in the latter case why someone would happen to be carrying a knife big enough to stab someone fatally in the back when the murder was spur of the moment rather than preplanned. Much of the information leading to the discovery is withheld until the resolution, and the ending seemed quite rushed. I thought this was the weakest of the Lathen's to date, barely better than the Dominics, with almost none of the amusing byplay among the recurring characters to sustain it.

Epitaph for a Lobbyist (1974) is another R.B. Dominic, and like the others it feels much more rushed and thin than the Lathens. A lobbyist has been outed by her daughter who revealed a written note indicating that one of three Congressmen had accepted a bribe. The lobbyist herself has been hiding out with her estranged husband but she decides to fly back to Washington, only to turn up dead shortly after arriving. The three men under suspicion for the bribe are obvious suspects for the murder as well, but we can also include head of the lobby that hired her. The daughter and husband seem to be in the clear. The dead woman's secretary apparently makes a personal crusade out of finding out the truth, and she ends up nearly dead when she tries to contact the head of the lobby group. There is speculation that there is more written evidence, possibly in the possession of the daughter, and concern that the killer might strike again, but there are no clues, nothing that could allow the reader to logically choose among the various suspects. The revelation comes as no surprise but there's no way to anticipate it except by a random guess.  Not much of a mystery.

By Hook or By Crook (1975) is much much better. Thatcher and company have to deal with a Persian rug company whose aging CEO is being challenged by his children. When another relative emerges from within the Soviet Union, her shares could decide the contest, if she really is who she says she is. But before anyone can check her background, she is poisoned, presumably by one of the family. Then a business associate is poisoned under similar circumstances, just as he was apparently about to reveal something about the proper identity of a family member, but not necessarily the dead aunt. The children were on their own during World War II and it is entirely possible that one or all of them is not who they think they are. In the aftermath, the family squabbles are temporarily smoothed over but the real problems have not been addressed. I guessed the murderer again, but as with most of the earlier novels, it was a hunch based on the situation since much of the incriminating evidence is withheld until the end. This is one of the better Thatcher stories

Murder Out of Commission (1976) was the next R.B. Dominic title. It revolves around the controversy associated with building a nuclear power plant in a rural community. There's a good deal of superficial examination of the actual issues, but the story really involves the murder of a safety commissioner and suspicions that a local environmental protest group might be responsible. Then a noted authority gets involved and he calls our hero, Congressman Ben Safford, indicating that he has just discovered something very important. Predictably he too is murdered before he can spill the beans, so Safford has to figure out what he knew and solve the two crimes. The story line is pretty lean this time as well and while there is a bit more effort to flesh in the characters, they are still little more than stick figures. The difference between the Lathens and the Dominics is surprising and consistent.

Double, Double, Oil and Trouble (1978) takes Thatcher to Zurich just as a businessman negotiating oil development rights is kidnapped by terrorists and held for ransom. The ransom is paid, spirited away by a disguised woman with a backpack, but the detainee is not released. Weeks pass and the oil deal is completed, but there is still no sign of the missing businessman and despite a renewed threat from the supposed abductors, there are no further demands. At this point one might wonder if the terrorists - of whom no one had previously heard - might actually be agents of the competing oil bidders, or perhaps his assistant, who would have liked the job for himself. Or maybe even the estranged wife. The latter looks more attractive as a solution when she shows up escorted by the opposition's chief negotiator. Our suspicions change when the kidnap victim becomes very nervous about talking to the police. Is he afraid of reprisals or was the kidnapping actually faked in order to defraud his company of the ransom? Then a bomb is planted in his car, making the first option seem more plausible, but there are too many questions to be resolved. This one is a pretty good thriller, though not a particularly good mystery novel since there are four criminals out of a cast of only eight suspects.

We return to R.B. Dominic with The Attending Physician (1980). Ben Safford is one of several people investigating Medicaid abuses when a scandal in his own district draws national attention. Seven doctors have received disproportionate and apparently illegal subsidies, and a local lawyer is pressing the issue. When the lawyer turns up dead, we have seven instant suspects, although there's somewhat of a surprise in the solution. This was one of the better Dominics, though still inferior to the Lathens, and for the usual reasons, although there is a bit more flesh on the bones this time than previously. Safford and the other regular characters never develop any depth or individuality like they do in the Lathens.

Going for the Gold (1980), not surprisingly, is set during the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid and opens with a French skier being shot to death in the midst of a practice jump. Immediately thereafter it is discovered that a massive counterfeit travelers' check scheme is underway and that the dead man, Bisson, was involved, perhaps innocently but more likely not. This one is more of a traditional detective story than most of the others in the series, but it also feels more rushed, resembling an R.B. Dominic rather than a Lathen, with the familiar characters treated brusquely at times. There's also suspicion that one or more of the athletes might have taken illegal performance enhancing drugs. There's a major storm to complicate matters, and some political wrangling on the IOC, but neither assumes major proportions. The structure of the plot is closer to my preferences in this genre than most of the other Lathen novels, but there doesn't seem to be enough flesh on the bones.

Green Grow the Dollars (1982) involves a lawsuit between two seed companies regarding who actually developed a super tomato worth a fortune to whoever prevails. The challengers include a scientist with a long standing if not entirely rational grudge against the company that had actually planned to bring it to market. The challengees are largely members of a family who have run the business for years. Because of injunctions against the bank account of the latter, Thatcher and company are thrown into the mix. As the arguments get hotter, one woman seems likely to be the key to revealing just who was responsible for some industrial espionage, and so naturally she ends up being murdered. I didn't guess the murderer this time, but there really wasn't enough evidence to figure it out in advance. It's still one of the better Lathens, particularly from this late in their career.

Unexpected Developments (1984) was the last of the R.B. Dominic novels. It's atypical of their work, more of a spy novel than a mystery. Congressman Safford attempts to come to the assistance of a military pilot whom he believes is being unfairly blamed for a crash. Then there's a murder, of course, plus a bomb plot, faked suicide, and an experimental aircraft with abilities which have international implications. Caught in the middle, Safford has to solve the crime and figure out just what's going on. Oddly enough, this was different enough that I actually liked it better than the previous Dominic novels, although it still doesn't measure up to most of the Lathens. The change of pace was stillborn, however, as there were no further Safford adventures.

Something in the Air (1988) switches to the airline industry. A small carrier is on the verge of a major expansion, and since it is partly employee owned, that sparks controversy. The crisis worsens when a chosen spokesperson for the employees goes off on his own mania during a meeting, inciting everyone in sight, after which he is found murdered. The president of the company is the chief suspect but the issue is muddied when evidence turns up suggesting that the dead man had accepted a bribe to cause trouble at the company, possibly as a prelude to a hostile takeover. Speculation then turns to the company's competitors, particularly a man who used to work for them and who is now an executive at a potentially foundering rival. The internal politics of the central company takes up a large part of the book, and it's better done than I would have expected, revealing a good deal about some interesting characters though not contributing much to exploration of the mystery. The bribes have been going on for a considerable period of time, suggesting blackmail, which leads to a widening of the suspect list. This is one of the best of the Lathens, and I only guessed the killer a few pages before it was revealed. I was a bit disappointed that the resolution of the non-murder related power struggle was settled off stage.

East is East (1991) takes Thatcher to Japan. An attempt by an American company to open a lucrative market in Japan runs into problems with vested interests there. One corporation stands to gain and another to lose, both on a very large scale. The government, not normally open to outside interests, is hoping to divert attention from a scandal and the American entrepreneur is charismatic and popular with the Japanese press. When a minor clerk working for a government office is murdered, it initially appears to have nothing to do with the impending deal. A letter turns up in the dead man's files suggesting that a bribe was paid to get approval of the project and suddenly the American delegation is being hastily hustled out of the country. Then another scandal rocks a Japanese company and it looks like the deal might be back on. Unfortunately, there's very little Thatcher in any of this and the machinations among the politicians and businessmen become a bit wearing after a while. Soon there's dissension within the American company as well, suspicions of private agendas and sabotage. Eventually another Japanese official is shot, though not fatally, and apparently by accident because it is the unhappy American employee who was the real target, and who is murdered shortly thereafter. The solution is a mild cheat, based on withheld information, and I guessed half right - since there were two conspirators. One of the least interesting of the Thatcher adventures.

Right on the Money (1993) is another mystery centering on a controversial business merger. For various reasons there are people on both sides of the acquisition who have doubts about its wisdom, or its potential impact on their own careers. Rumors of improper conduct in the research division of the larger company and industrial espionage also complicate matters. The chief troublemaker, who has enemies in both camps, is destined to be the victim and before long he meets his fate. Arson at one of the companies ruins records which may have provided that evidence that at least one of the various rumors about wrongdoing was based on fact, although the arson might well have been committed by the troublemaker from the second firm, who is now dead. Some of the apparently guilty actions are pretty transparent; a man protecting his wife because he thinks she's the arsonist, others covering their own butts in advance. Satisfactory ending although once again the solution is based on unrevealed information so you have to be a lucky guesser to figure out who the killer was.

Brewing Up a Storm (1996) was the penultimate Thatcher novel. It's about average. When a brewery introduces a new non-alcoholic beer, and a restaurant chain offers it to its younger patrons, a protest movement led by an abrasive woman takes to the streets. She ends up dead before long and the obvious suspects are those she is suing, although the investigation reveals that she has made a good many more enemies as well. Thatcher lurks around the edges of the story and then has an insight which leads to the proper resolution. I thought the build up this time was a bit awkwardly contrived but for the most part it's not bad, though far from their best.

 

The final Thatcher novel was A Shark Out of Water (1997). Happily they ended the Lathen career on a strong note. The setting is mostly Poland where an international development organization's chief of staff is bludgeoned to death shortly after announcing that he had unearthed a major scandal and was about to make it public. There's no end of enemies for this victim either. His obsession with building a new Kiel Canal has irritated his boss, members of the development's board, at least one businessman who feels he is being discriminated against, and a host of others. Looming over all of this is a major disaster in the canal, a chain of collisions that closes it indefinitely, which may or may not have been a misguided effort by environmentalists - some of whom claim credit - or may have had darker purposes. There's even an actual clue leading to the truth about who the killer is and I guessed correctly.