Also wrote as: R. B. Dominic
Writing jointly under two different pseudonyms, Emma Lathen and R. B. Dominic, Martha Henissart and Mary Jane Latsis created murder mysteries that rank among the best. For their day jobs, Henissart also worked as a corporation lawyer and corporate banker, Latsis as an administrator for the federal government and an economist at the United Nations. Both held graduate degrees from Harvard University.
The Dominic novels focus upon a continuing character, Senator Ben Safford of Ohio, an amateur detective. Safford's legislative duties draw him into murder cases, all of which are briskly plotted. Murder in High Places (1970) features Karen Jenks, ousted from her studies in South America by political pressure. The portrait is candid and refreshing, an interesting example of this series' realism. Here Henissart and Latsis combine humor and social comment, a pattern apparent in all their books. There is No Justice (1971) deals with a Supreme Court appointment, and Epitaph for a Lobbyist (1974) treats political corruption.
John Putnam Thatcher, described by the Los Angeles Daily News as "the Agatha Christie of Wall Street," is the continuing character, whose adventures, stemming from his work as senior officer at the Sloan Guaranty Trust of Wall Street, often include murder investigation in the Lathen books. All the plots arise from some facet of business practice: tax-loss farming in A Place for Murder (1963), fast food chains in Murder to Go (1969), and real estate development in Ashes to Ashes (1971). The titles are often sources for sly humor, as in A Stitch in Time (1968), which deals with medical fraud. Thatcher, representing the Sloan Guaranty Trust, goes wherever money and mayhem are being made. An urbane, deliberate, clever widower, the banker is comfortable in all settings, from the hockey rink in Murder Without Icing (1972) to Detroit's auto empires in Murder Makes the Wheels Go 'Round (1966). Thatcher knows that sport can involve high finance; his creators know that high finance can provide recreation through mystery fiction.
The portraits of female characters are particularly interesting, for they illustrate careful attention to detail and realism. Thatcher's secretary, Rose Teresa Corsa, is no office wife; instead, she values herself and her work, wisely exercising the power she has accrued and acknowledging that she is indispensable. Through her, sharp comments about women's traditional business roles are often made, as in When in Greece (1969). The Corsa characterization is nicely rounded, for readers are allowed some knowledge of her extended family and are aware she has a life of her own.
A contrasting example of fully realized characterization is lonely, undervalued Tessie Marcus in Murder Against the Grain (1967). At first Marcus appears to be merely the stereotyped girl Friday who has invested her energy and affection in the firm for which she works. But actually a multidimensional portrait is drawn, for Marcus proves capable of decisiveness and vigorous self-interest.
The portrayal of labor leader Annie Galiano in The Longer the Thread (1971) saves this novel, for the business manipulations central to the main plot are a bit more cumbersome than usual. Galiano is a major character, a powerful, astute, and effective woman marked by years of strenuous work. She is a tough, victorious bargainer in the strike that provides the subplot, and her presence also serves to augment unity in the novel. Much of the success of this series stems from detailed portraits such as hers, which never deter the swift pace but do flesh out the stories.
Full of comments about American culture, the Thatcher books are novels of manners. Few facets of modern living escape observation, and they range from Americans' adoration of automobiles in Sweet and Low (1974) to campus radicals in Pick Up Sticks (1970) and civil rights in Death Shall Overcome (1966). Unfortunately, the social commentary in the latter is flawed. Both Edward Parry (the first black to sit on the stock exchange) and a racist Southerner are too stereotyped to be fully effective; here characterization is not saved by caricature. Yet the book is redeemed by marvelously humorous moments, a device that never fails in this series.
In Brewing up a Storm (1996), regular characters Tom Robichaux, Everett Gabler, and Walter Bowman are left out of the story, not as much emphasis is placed on the world of high finance as on the whodunit itself, and the critics were less than kind in their reviews of this book, saying it is not "her" (Lathen's) best book.
The pair redeems Lathen's good name in A Shark Out of Water (1997), which marked the 23rd novel in the Thatcher series. The book, which won an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers Association, keeps the character fresh, despite his longevity. Thatcher remains a great character, and in Shark the storyline is filled with irony targeted at the slapstick efforts of governments and international corporations and the capitalization of the remnants of the former Soviet Union. Lathen also took a look outside the U.S. in East is East (1991), in which Thatcher travels to Japan and becomes involved in a murder there. The plot line was similar to the film Rising Sun (1993) starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes caught up in a shadowy world of Japanese business and terrorism.
The Henissart and Latsis team produced consistently strong, thoughtful books, and they avoided the formulaic limitations of many mystery novels through skillful use of characterization, social criticism, and splendid humor, which is often based on irony. The authors' special professional knowledge informed the novels, which hold a secure place among well-written mysteries capitalizing on the popularization of unusual expertise.
In 1983 Henissart and Latsis shared an Ellery Queen award, given by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, along with their 1967 Crime Writers Association Silver Dagger. In 1997 the pair shared an Agatha award for Lifetime Achievement. Latsis passed away in 1997, leaving the fate of the two pseudonymous authors undecided in the hands of her longtime collaborator and friend, Henissart.
Lathen's fans have included such stalwarts in the legal profession as the late Professor James Willard Hurst (1910-1997) of the Wisconsin Law School (who, coincidentally, has a prize for the best book in American legal history named after him) and Stewart Macaulay, Malcolm Pitman Sharp Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Banking on Death (1961). Accounting for Murder (1964). Come to Dust (1968). Murder, Sunny Side Up (1968). Murder Out of Court (1971). By Hook or By Crook (1975). Murder out of Commission (1976). Double, Double, Oil and Trouble (1978). The Attending Physician (1980). Going for the Gold (1981). Green Grow the Dollars (1982). Banking on Murder: Three by Emma Lathen (1984). Unexpected Developments (1984). Something In the Air (1988). Right on the Money: A John Thatcher Mystery (1996).
Bargainnier, E. F., Ten Women of Mystery (1981). Klein, K. G., Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary (1994).
Detecting Women (1994). Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers 1996.
Armchair Detective (Nov. 1974, June 1976). Forbes (1 Dec. 1977). Harvard (July/Aug. 1975). Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly (Winter 1977). Tablet (22 Aug. 1970).
—JANE S. BAKERMAN,
UPDATED BY DARYL F. MALLETT