Emma Lathen: Early versus Later Mysteries

My version of John Thatcher (at home) sans the
laptop--because of course, the novels start
in the 1960s.
I recently read through all Emma Lathen's John Thatcher novels, most for the third or fourth time, a few for the second time.

There are 24 in total, starting with Banking on Death and ending with Shark Out of Water. I consider Banking on Death (1) to Going for the Gold (18) to be canon; the remaining novels are good but "less-canon."

I have always been hard-pressed to explain why. What exactly changes between Going for the Gold (#18, one of my favorites) and Green Grow the Dollars (#19)? It isn't the cast of characters. Thatcher, Trinkam, Miss Corsa, Gabler, Nicolls, and Bowman all make appearances. It isn't the emphasis on business and banking. Emma Lathen (two authors acting as a duo) have always been "Wall Street's Agatha Christie." As in all the novels, the resolution/denouement rests on a clever and insightful understanding of human nature.

The most classic Lathen murder
mystery: estranged husband & wife,
mistress, and deer antlers.
The later six novels seem to be less about a stock group of murder mystery characters (which I prefer) and more a listing of people who could possibly be involved in a deal (which I find tiring). It's the difference between the-wife-who-might-murder-her-husband and the research-partner-who-has-stock-options-and-is-also-related-to-the-vice-president-of-operations.

Due to the smaller cast, the earlier books also focus more on the detective, Thatcher, rather than on the multiple possible murderers. Many of the later books feel rather like later Columbo episodes where the script spends so much time introducing and explaining the soap opera relationships between the various characters, one begins to wonder when Columbo will show up (this may have been done to spare the aging Peter Falk physical exhaustion).

There is also a difference in tone. In Green Grows the Dollars, Thatcher and Trinkam end up at a seed & plant conference. When a CEO assumes Thatcher is there for the sake of his company, Thatcher responds:
"No. I'm in Chicago on other business. I recall your talk about the convention, of course. But I don't see that the Sloan [Bank] has anything to gain by attending."
This is, in fact, something that Thatcher would think. But it's not something he would say in the canon books. In the canon books, the narrator would write something like the following:
Thatcher  reflected how quickly people assume that the world is entirely concerned with their concerns. He had never attended a convention of plant specialists and although he was always willing to broaden his horizons, he saw no reason to do so now. He explained as tactfully as he could that a worldwide bank like the Sloan did have other reasons to visit Chicago. 
The books explore many business
ventures from hockey to the
automobile industry.
Funny. Wry. This tone is apparent in Green Grows the Dollars, which still delivers quintessential passages, but it is less prevalent than usual--precisely because Thatcher is less prevalent than usual. The attitude of wryness continues but not always the direct experience.

Thatcher is a great outside-the-box detective: he is a conservative, middle-class man, who appreciates the life he has chosen but doesn't take it quite as seriously as his fellow bankers. He works hard but at the back of all the work lurks a sense of bemusement: Why would anyone ever get so invested in this world he or she would resort to murder?

In the later books, by necessity (amid all the other deal-making characters), he becomes more The Earnest Man of Business.

All the books are worth reading. My favorites include the following:
  • Ashes to Ashes, Book 12, which involves the Catholic Church and parent protests as well as bomb threats (and comes down to a classic business murder suspect)
  • Sweet and Low, Book 15, possibly my overall favorite, which involves the cocoa exchange and has hilarious satiric exchanges between an avant-garde artiste and a couple of Italian businessmen who refuse to play the part of European highbrows
  • Going for the Gold, Book 18, which includes evocative scenes of a snow-bound Lake Placid during the 1980 Olympics (which was not actually struck by a blizzard but could have been)

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