Today I plucked Emma Lathen‘s Death Shall Overcome from my recently reconstituted bookshelves. It was published in 1966, and it’s one of a series of mysteries featuring the improbable but highly likable and, in the clinches, deeply honorable amateur sleuth John Putnam Thatcher, who in his day job is senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, a staid and sober Wall Street institution that would never, or at least not in 1966, find itself in the untoward position of requiring a financial bailout from these reluctantly wallet-emptying United States of America. The Sloan Guaranty found ways to act justly and properly and still pile up princely profits, which perhaps is a tipoff that this is a work of fiction.
Death Shall Overcome hinges on the impending appointment to a seat on the New York Stock Exchange of its first black member, a man of impeccably conservative fiduciary credentials and precisely the pigmentation to drive certain portions of The Club straight up the wall. Not John Putnam Thatcher, of course, who knows a good man — and a proper course of action — when he sees one.
Mystery monger Jim Huang considers Lathen’s skills as a sly and pointed observer of the social customs of the actual and would-be cultural elite to be Jane Austen-like. That may be taking things a little far, and yet three-fourths of the pleasure in reading these witty mysteries comes from Lathen’s wry observations of the peculiar culture that is her milieu. So, borrowing a page once again from Rose City Reader (I know, I said I’d do this only once — I lied) here’s the beginning of the book:
Above all, Wall Street is power. The talk is of stocks and bonds, of contracts and bills of lading, of gold certificates and wheat futures, but it is talk that sends fleets steaming to distant oceans, that determines the fate of new African governments, that closes mining camps in the Chibougamou. In the world’s great money market, power has forged massive canyons through which thousands of men and women daily hurry to work, hurry to lunch, hurry, hurry, hurry in the shadows of towers tall enough to defy the heavens. Depending upon your point of view, Wall Street is either awesomely impressive or appalling.
No one has ever called it beautiful.
If I thought the John Thatcher Putnams were in charge, I’d vote for “awesomely impressive.” Lacking that assurance … well, there’s always fiction. And Emma Lathen is really very good at it.