Emma Lathen: a dual force in mystery literature

If you were an avid reader of mystery novels in the 1960s, you were probably aware of three female mystery writers more than any others: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Emma Lathen.

Emma Lathen?

While Christie and Sayers have achieved immortality in the realms of mystery fiction, Lathen has all but disappeared. Yet her own story is as interesting as any 20th-century writer, and her books are almost unique in their settings and character.

As Neil Nyren writes in CrimeReads.com:

Between 1961 and 1997, Lathen published 24 mysteries featuring John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, the “third largest bank in the world,” and the first fictional sleuth to spring from the world of Wall Street. The novels were witty, crisp, insightful, intricately plotted, and highly instructive about the ways of the financial universe and the myriad businesses and industries therein. Source: Emma Lathen: A Crime Reader’s Guide to the Classics | CrimeReads

But who was Emma Lathen anyway?

Emma Lathen was a pseudonym for the writing team of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart, both of whom were born in the late 1920s. They met when they were graduate students at Harvard University in 1952. Latsis was studying public administration and economics, and Henissart was in law school. They were roommates at Harvard and loved mystery novels.

Latsis took a number of government jobs after graduation but eventually returned to the Boston area to teach at Wellesley College. Henissart practiced law in New York, but she also returned to Boston to be the chief legal counsel for Raytheon. When she came back, she stayed with Latsis while house hunting. It was during those days that they came up with the idea of writing mystery novels together.

Their method was to come up with and develop an idea. Latsis would write the first chapter, and Henissart would write the last, and they would alternate writing the chapters in between. Once a draft was finished, they would get together and iron out the contradictions and inconsistencies.

Their first novel, Banking on Death, was published in 1961. In all, they produced 24 of these novels during the next 36 years. In 1968, they produced the first of a different series with an Ohio congressman as the protagonist. These novels were written under the pseudonym of  R.B. Dominic. There were only seven books in this series.

Their pseudonym stayed a secret until 1977.

They continued to write until Latsis’ death in 1997. Henissart is still alive, but she gave up writing when Latsis died.

The books they produced are written with verve and humor — the opposite, I suppose, of the noir genre. The characters are often comic, and it’s obvious that the writers were having fun creating them. Their Accounting for Murder won the Silver Dagger award in 1964, and Murder Against the Grain won the Golden Dagger award in 1967.

Here is the 1997 New York Times obituary for Latsis: M.J. Latsis, 70, Emma Lathen Writing Team Collaborator – The New York Times

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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