Category Archives: Emma Lathen

Hardly Anyone Has Seen How Good I Am*

Not long ago, I did a spotlight on Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring. And, as always seems to happen, the best thing about the post wasn’t the post at all. It was the discussion that followed it. In this case, a few of you commented about Haddam’s series, and wondered why it’s not much more widely read than it is.

And that’s got me thinking about other series that are like that. You know the sort of series I mean. They’re well-regarded, and may run to five, ten, or even more, books. But at the same time, they aren’t very widely read, and you don’t see them on a lot of ‘recommended’ lists.

It’s a difficult question to answer, really. After all, people differ greatly on what ‘counts’ as ‘widely read’ and ‘well known.’ That said, though, it’s interesting to consider why some series catch fire, as the saying goes, and are talked about a lot, and others aren’t.

Haddam’s is arguably one such series. For those not familiar with these novels, they feature former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian. He has an Armenian background, and is a member of Philadelphia’s Armenian community. In fact, most of the novels in the series are set in and around that city. Although he’s retired, he does consult with the police under certain circumstances. And a lot of the cases he investigates come through his best friend and local parish priest, Father Tibor. This is a 29-book series, so it’s not just a matter of a few books. And Haddam’s won awards for her work. And yet, plenty of people aren’t familiar at all with her series.

The ‘Emma Lathen’ writing team of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart created the very well-regarded John Putnam Thatcher series. As fans of the series can tell you, Thatcher is a vice-president for the Sloan Guaranty Trust. The Sloan is often involved in mergers, acquisitions, international banking, and so on. So, there’s plenty of opportunity for nefarious doings, including fraud and murder. This series is 24 novels long, and, like Haddam’s, has won awards. In fact, one of the entries, Murder Against the Grain, won the Crime Writer’s Association (CWA)’s 1967 Gold Dagger Award. And the team won the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1997. Admittedly, this series is arguably more widely known than Haddam’s. Still, it doesn’t always make the list of best-known authors and series the way, say, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series might.

The same might be said for the work of Marian Babson. Since 1971’s Cover Up Story, she’s had more than 40 books published. Interestingly enough, they’re all standalones (although some do re-use characters). They’re traditional-style mysteries, usually involving amateur sleuths. That said, though, they aren’t really what you’d call ‘cosy.’ While they tend to be low on violence (especially graphic violence), they aren’t ‘light, frothy’ books. Babson’s work is very highly regarded, especially among those who prefer traditional mysteries. She won the CWA’s 1996 Dagger in the Library Award for her body of work. And yet, a great many readers, including crime fiction fans, aren’t familiar at all with her work. And it’s not for lack of quality or high regard. Like Haddam and the Emma Lathen team, it’s also not because she only wrote a few novels.

There’s also the case of K.C. Constantine. He is the author of the Mario Balzic series, which takes place in the fictional Western Pennsylvania town of Rocksburg, where Balzic is Chief of Police. Beginning with The Blank Page, there are 17 novels in the series, most of which feature Balzic (two feature his protégé, Detective Sergeant Ruggiero ‘Rugs’ Carlucci, as well as other ‘beat’ cops). Rocksburg is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so, as the series evolves, we get to know Balzic, his wife, and several other people in the town quite well. And, in fact, character development plays an important role in the series. It’s a highly-regarded series, and fans will tell you it’s well worth reading. And, yet, you might easily be forgiven for never having heard of these books. In a way, that’s how Constantine likes it. He chooses to remain as anonymous as possible, and values his privacy, and that of his family, very much. So, even if you’re a crime fiction fan who goes to conferences such as Malice Domestic, Crimefest, Bouchercon, or other such events, you’re not likely to meet him.

And then there’s Jill McGown’s series featuring Detective Inspector (DI) David Lloyd, and Detective Sergeant (DS) Judy Hill of Stansfield CID. Beginning with 1983’s A Perfect Match, this is a traditional-style police procedural series. As the series goes on, Lloyd and Hill move along in their careers. They also continue their romantic relationship, eventually marrying and having a family. But the focus in these novels is on the mysteries. All in all, there are thirteen books in the series, and they’re well regarded. In fact, A Shred of Evidence was adapted for television film in 2001. McGown’s fans are devoted, too. And yet, this series is arguably not a ‘household word,’ the way, say, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is.

There are plenty of other series, too, that fall into this category. I’ll bet you could name far more examples than I could. And there are a number of reasons that a series might not be particularly widely known. Even if authors are willing to go to a lot of conferences, etc., to promote their work, there’s a lot of competition. And with today’s self-publishing and other digital publication, there are even more book choices. So, readers have to make decisions about what they’ll choose. So do publishers. Even if an author is talented, and gets professional acclaim, that doesn’t mean that particular author is a best-seller. And publishers are interested in promoting the work of authors whose work sells a lot.

There are other reasons, too. What do you think about this? Which authors do you feel deserve a lot more attention than they’ve gotten? Why do you think those authors haven’t ‘caught fire?’ Thanks to those who commented on that earlier post, and got me thinking about this!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Rosalinda’s Eyes.

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Filed under Colin Dexter, Emma Lathen, Jane Haddam, Jill McGown, K.C. Constantine, Marian Babson, Sue Grafton

Applause, Applause For Bald Face White Collar Crime*

The thing about ‘easy money’ is that it almost never is. And most people know that. But that doesn’t stop people padding their accounts – or trying to do so. And that’s often when trouble starts. For one thing, it’s illegal to embezzle or otherwise take other people’s money.  That means the police tend to take an interest in such matters. For another, those who’ve been cheated don’t tend to take kindly to it. And that can lead to consequences, too. Still, there are plenty of people who think they can get away with that sort of crime, whether it’s ‘to rob Peter to pay Paul,’ or ‘just until things get better,’ or ‘just this once.’

It certainly happens enough in real life, and it happens in crime fiction, too. And it doesn’t tend to work out well for those who take that risk. For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body?,  an architect named Alfred Thipps is shocked one day when he discovers the body of a dead man in his bathtub. The police begin to investigate; and, of course, Thipps himself is very much a ‘person of interest.’ He claims to be innocent, though, and his employer, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, believes him. She asks her son, Lord Peter Wimsey, to look into the matter. Wimsey finds that another odd event has occurred: the disappearance of financier Rueben Levy. And it’s discovered that Levy was engaged in some questionable oil shares transactions. It turns out that the body in Thipps’ bathtub is not Levy’s, but the two incidents are related, as are those shady trading deals.

In Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, New York schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers takes her class on a field trip to the New York Aquarium. Just as the group is about to leave the aquarium, one of Miss Withers’ students notices the body of a dead man sliding into the penguin pool. Inspector Oscar Piper is called to the scene, and begins the investigation. The victim is soon identified as stockbroker Gerald Lester, and it’s not long before Piper and Miss Withers uncover a number of possible motives and suspects. For one thing, Lester’s wife, Gwen, has been having an affair with his attorney, Philip Seymour, and both of them were at the aquarium at the time of the murder. For another, the story takes place just after the Great Crash of 1929 that was immediately followed by the worldwide Great Depression. Many of Lester’s clients lost everything, and more than one of them could easily have wanted revenge. There are other possibilities, too. Each in a different way, Piper and Miss Withers look into the case, and find out that Lester’s ‘unconventional’ ways of doing business played a role in his murder.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood tells the story of the Cloade family. Wealthy Gordon Cloade, the family patriarch, had always told his siblings and their families that they wouldn’t have to worry about money. And they’ve always depended on him to help provide for their needs. Then, to everyone’s shock, Cloade married a widow named Rosaleen Underhay. Before he had time to alter his will, though, he was killed in a World War II bomb blast. Now, Rosaleen is set to inherit everything, and the rest of the Cloades will get nothing. Then, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay, may still be alive. If so, this means that Rosaleen won’t be able to inherit anything. So, all of the Cloades have a stake in Arden’s visit, and are all involved on at least some level when he is killed one night. Hercule Poirot has already met two of the Cloades, so he takes an interest in the case. One of the people he gets to know is the victim’s brother, Jeremy. And it turns out that Jeremy Cloade has been using clients’ funds inappropriately. That misappropriation of money gives him a very high stake in the outcome of this mystery…

Emma Lathen’s John Putnam Thatcher is an executive with the Sloan Guaranty Trust bank. So, he’s seen his share of attempts to embezzle or otherwise get the use of people’s money. For instance, in Going For the Gold, the bank has gotten the exclusive contract for providing banking services for the (1980) Lake Placid Winter Olympics. So, Thatcher goes to Lake Placid to see that all of the bank’s operations are going smoothly. When Yves Bisson, a French ski jumper, is murdered, everyone thinks at first that it’s a terrorist attack. Soon enough, though, Thatcher is distracted by reports that the bank has been targeted in a counterfeiting scheme. It turns out that Bisson’s death, and other incidents that happen, are related to this scheme, and to someone’s need to cover up theft with counterfeiting and murder.

And then there’s Emmet Sweetman, whom we meet in one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. He’s a crooked banker who’s been involved in more than one dubious transaction. During the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was enough money coming in that Sweetman could use depositors’ money and other funds, and not get caught. There was always going to be income to cover up what he did. But then, the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years ended, and Sweetman ended up owing a lot of money to some very dangerous people. And one night, two of them shoot him in his own home. Dublin DS Bob Tidey investigates the murder, together with Garda Rose Cheney.

If there’s anything this and other crime novels tell us, it’s that it’s never a good idea to use other people’s money without their approval. In some way or another, it always seems to come back to haunt. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Robben Ford’s Lateral Climb.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Emma Lathen, Gene Kerrigan, Stuart Palmer

Been So Long Since I Last Saw You*

letting-a-series-goI’ll bet you know the feeling. You read about – or someone mentions – an author whose work you’ve always admired. Then it hits you: you haven’t caught up with that author’s work in a long time – perhaps too long. How does it happen that we stop reading one or another of our top authors?

I’m not talking here of authors who’ve put you off for one reason or another. We all have lists of authors like that. Rather, I mean authors you really like, but whose books you haven’t kept up with the way you wanted to do.

There are, of course, any number of reasons that might happen. And our reasons for not keeping up with a series can be as varied as we are. So, I can only speak for myself. That said, I do find it a really interesting topic, and I’d love your input on it.

Sometimes, people don’t keep up with, or finish, a series they really enjoy because there are just too many entries in it. For instance, Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series runs to more than 50 novels. It’s very difficult to keep up with a series that long. That takes quite a commitment. So, I have to confess, I’ve not read every entry in this series (although I would like to). And one of the things about this series is that it does depict changes in the characters’ lives as time goes by and as they evolve. For that reason, it would be especially good to follow the series straight through in its entirety. I’ve not, but perhaps someday.

There are authors who take a hiatus from a series – sometimes a long one – and then bring it back. That’s what Philip Kerr did with his Bernie Gunther series. Fans of this series will know that it begins with the Berlin Noir trilogy that takes place just before and during World War II. Gunther is a private detective, who’s trying to negotiate the very risky landscape that is Berlin at that time. After the first few novels, Kerr didn’t publish a Bernie Gunther novel for fifteen years. In that time, people move on to other things. Or, their tastes may change. That could very easily impact someone’s decision to keep up with a series. In fact, you could argue that it’s a real tribute to Kerr’s skill that he found a ready audience for his more recent Gunther novels.

In those sorts of cases, it’s understandable enough that someone might not keep up with a series, even an excellent one. What, to me, is more interesting is the case of the series where there’s no obvious reason to let it go, but we do.  Again, everyone is different about this, but for me, Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury series falls into that category. It’s a well-regarded series, with interesting characters and some wit. There are solid puzzles in it, too. I didn’t keep up with that series the way I wanted to, and it has nothing to do with its quality. Nor is it because my tastes have changed dramatically. Perhaps it’s got something to do with time; no-one has time to read everything that’s good. But this is one of those series that I’d like to keep up with better than I did.

So is the “Emma Lathen’ writing team’s John Putnam Thatcher series. Fans can tell you that it has as its context the banking and finance industry, with Thatcher as a vice president for the Sloan Guaranty Trust. The series is very well regarded, and with good reason. I know people who’ve read every one of the novels, too. I’ll confess I haven’t. And there’s no specific reason for that, either. I like the series, I like Thatcher’s character, and so on.  It’s just one of those series that simply hasn’t stayed in the forefront of my reading.

Neither has the work of Robert Barnard, who created several terrific crime-fictional characters. A few are recurring (such as PI Perry Trethowan). Others of his novels are standalones. In both cases, Barnard wrote some solid and well-crafted stories. I enjoyed those that I read very much. But…I didn’t keep up with them. It’s got nothing to do with the quality of the books, and I do recommend them.

Those are just a few examples from my own reading. Perhaps you have some of your own. And that raises a question (at least for me). If we don’t stop reading a series for quality reasons, why do we? Is it the ‘Oooh, shiny’ factor of new novels and new-to-us authors? It is the time factor? Or, perhaps, is it that ‘I will never catch up’ feeling when it occurs to you that you’re four or five books behind with an author?

I’d love to hear from you about this. Which enjoyable series have you let slip away? Do you plan to pick up where you left off?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hollies’ Come on Back.

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Filed under Ed McBain, Emma Lathen, Martha Grimes, Philip Kerr, Robert Barnard

Money, It’s a Crime*

Banking and MoneyThey may not get a lot of media hype and glory, but in real life, people who can follow money trails are responsible for catching a lot of criminals. It’s very hard to do any kind of business without leaving some sort of financial trail, however faint. People who can trace those financial transactions can often turn up useful evidence. Their results can bear on all sorts of crimes, from embezzling to drugs, to human trafficking, murder and other crimes, too.

They also play an important role in crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples. It all certainly shows that money and banking experts aren’t just pencil-pushing nerds…

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary Felicity Lemon asks him to consult with her sister Mrs. Hubbard. It seems that the student hostel that Mrs. Hubbard manages has been subject to some strange thefts and other odd goings-on, and she would like the matter resolved without bringing in the police. Poirot agrees and pays a visit to the hostel. During his visit, Celia Austin, who is one of the residents, admits to most of the thefts, and it’s believed the situation is over. But two nights later, Celia dies in what seems to be a successful suicide attempt. It’s soon shown to be murder, though, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who the killer is. As they look into the matter, they find that several hostel residents have been hiding some very dangerous secrets, and that Celia found out more than was safe for her to know. One of those secrets is found out through a careful following of a ‘money trail.’

Sloan Guaranty Trust Vice President John Putham Thatcher knows all about following the money, as the saying goes. The creation of the ‘Emma Lathen’ writing duo, he gets drawn into all sorts of crime as he and his team uncover banking irregularities. In Murder to Go, he uncovers the network of complicated financial transactions that take place when companies merge. In Going For the Gold, it’s counterfeiting that leads to theft and murder. Thatcher may not be the kind of sleuth who gets a lot of media attention, but his knowledge of banking, finance and ways to hide money give him an important edge in catching criminals.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman was an accountant before she followed her dream of becoming a baker. Although she’s no longer in the money business, she still has that knowledge, and she still knows people in accountancy, finance and banking. In Heavenly Pleasures, for instance, Chapman is concerned about a new resident in Insula, the Melbourne building where she lives and works. He’s quite enigmatic, and seems to have attracted some very unwanted attention. Chapman discovers that he is a former highly-placed accountant at a major firm. So when her friend Janet Warren comes to visit, Chapman wants her input. Warren is in the accounting business (that’s how she and Chapman became friends), and has some interesting ‘inside information.’ It turns out that Insula’s new resident may have been involved in, or at least know about, some very dubious high-level financial dealings. Without spoiling the story, I can say that following the money trail provides important information in this case.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that very often, finances are linked to the crimes he investigates. In About Face, for instance, Brunetti and his team investigate the murder of a truck driver, Stefano Ranzato, whose death may be linked to the illegal disposal of toxic waste. In the meantime, Brunetti’s father-in-law, Conte Orazio Falier, has asked him for some personal help. Falier is considering doing business with Maurizio Cataldo, and wants to know everything possible about Cataldo’s background and financial dealings. Brunetti agrees to find out what he can, and asks his boss’ assistant Signoria Elettra Zorzi to work her ‘computer magic’ and do a discreet background check. In this case (as in many in this series), it’s the quiet payments and ‘financial arrangements’ that tell more about the case than anything else.

Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a Toronto-based forensic accountant. Her specialty is tracing money and recovering it for people who’ve been swindled. Her home is Toronto, but she works for Chow Tung, a Hong Kong-based former triad leader whom she calls ‘Uncle.’ Chow has set up a financial recovery business, and Lee is his protégée and ‘star employee.’ This company is a last resort for people who can’t find recourse anywhere else and are desperate to get their money back.  In this series, we see how money can change hands many times, be stored in offshore bank accounts in places that don’t ask questions, and remain hidden from regular accounting checks. Lee is a master at making financial connections, and follows money trails wherever they lead. Her travels have taken her to Hong Kong, Bangkok, the Caribbean, and a lot of other places.

Following money trails is also a specialty for Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. In part because of her familiarity with banking, and in part because of her skill with computers, Salander is often able to track down financial information. And as those who’ve read the Millennium trilogy know, this also allows her to manipulate money as well.

Not all financial wizards are as well-traveled as Ava Lee, or as non-conformist as Lisbeth Salander. And they don’t all have ‘thriller like’ adventures. But it’s very often the work of people who understand money and finances that leads to catching some very big criminal fish.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Money.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Emma Lathen, Ian Hamilton, Kerry Greenwood, Stieg Larsson

The Shouts of Joy Skiing Fast Through the Woods*

SkiingDo you enjoy skiing? For people who do, there’s nothing like the feeling of almost flying as you go along. It’s good physical activity and it can be a lot of fun. But is it really healthy? Not if you read crime fiction. If you think about it, a ski lodge and ski slopes are terrific contexts for mysteries. You have a disparate group of people and lots of opportunity on the ski lift or slopes for a murder to occur. So it’s little wonder we see skiing pop up in crime fiction as much as we do. Here are just a few examples.

In Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, we are introduced to Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife Emma. In the novel, they take a skiing trip to Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. While they’re there, they’ll be staying at the Bella Vista Hotel. Shortly after their arrival, one of the other hotel guests, Austrian-born businessman Fritz Hauser, is shot and his body found on one of the ski lifts. Local police Capitano Spezzi and his team arrive to investigate. When they learn that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, he is included in the team. Tibbett thinks he’s settled on the right suspect when there’s another murder. And this murder calls into question Tibbett’s entire theory. Once he re-thinks matters, he’s able to work out who the murderer is. And I think I can say without spoiling the story that there are several impressive ski scenes in the novel.

There’s also some memorable skiing in the ‘Emma Lathen’ writing duo’s Going For the Gold. The 1980 Winter Olympic Games are set to start in Lake Placid, New York. The Sloan Guaranty Trust has won the bid to provide banking services to the athletes and their coaching staff, as well as to those there to see the competitions. John Putnam Thatcher has been sent to Lake Placid to oversee the setup of the three Lake Placid branches of the Sloan and ensure that all goes smoothly during the games. Shortly after the games begin, French ski jumper Yves Bisson is shot by a sniper as he’s making his jump. Then, one of the Sloan’s branch managers, Roger Hathaway, reports that the Sloan has lost half a million dollars in a counterfeit scheme. A counterfeit traveler’s check signed by Bisson is an important clue that those two events are related. It’s not long before Thatcher discovers that Bisson was quite possibly part of a major swindling ring. Then, another competitor, Tilly Lowengard, is disqualified when it’s discovered she was under the influence of drugs during one of her runs. She says that she’s innocent, and it’s not long before it’s clear that she’s also been a victim of the killer. Then a blizzard strikes, trapping everyone in Olympic Village. Thatcher will have to work fast to catch the killer before there’s another murder.

In Beth Groundwater’s To Hell in a Handbasket, gift basket designer Claire Hanover travels to Breckenridge, Colorado, for a ski trip with her family. One day, the group is out on the slopes when Claire hears her daughter Judy shriek. She finds Judy distraught and her brother’s girlfriend Stephanie dead of what looks like a terrible accident. The police investigate, and it’s not long before they begin to suspect that Stephanie was murdered. Since Judy was with her at the time, she becomes a ‘person of interest.’ She claims that she’s innocent and Claire is determined to prove that she is. Soon enough, Claire finds herself and her family the targets of some very ruthless people.

Skiing is also popular of course in Canada. But it’s no safer there. Just ask the Wyatt-Yarmouth family, whom we meet in Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets. Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth, her brother Jason and four friends take a ski trip to Trafalgar, British Columbia. Tragedy strikes when the SUV the group rented goes off an icy road and into the Upper Kootenay River. Inside are Jason and his friend Ewan Williams. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith and her boss Sergeant John Winter investigate and soon find something very strange. Jason was killed as a result of the accident. But Ewan, as it turns out, was dead for some hours before the SUV went off the road. Now it looks as though Ewan might have been murdered, and Smith and Winters look into the deaths more closely. I can say without spoiling this story that Smith is a very accomplished skiier, and we get to see her on the slopes in a very memorable couple of scenes.

And then there’s Jo Nesbø’s The Leopard (Could I really do a post about skiing without including Scandinavia?). At the beginning of this novel, Harry Hole is in self-imposed exile in Hong Kong. His plan is not to go back to Oslo, but then two women are found dead, killed in similar ways. It looks like the kind of case that Hary is especially good at solving, and so far, the police haven’t got any good leads. So police detective Kaja Solness is sent to Hong Kong to escort Hole to Oslo. He is, to put it mildly, reluctant. But in the end he goes with Solness when she tells him his father is severely ill. Still, he’s not eager to get involved in the investigation. Then, there’s another murder, this time of a female MP. Although it doesn’t seem so on the surface, Hole believes the cases are connected, and so they are. One of the links in the case is that all three women enjoyed skiing and went to the same ski lodge.

You see? Skiing can be an exhilarating pastime. But you do need to be careful. Which ski mysteries have you enjoyed?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Afterimage.

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Filed under Beth Groundwater, Emma Lathen, Jo Nesbø, Patricia Moyes, Vicki Delany