Sweet and Low (1974), by Emma Lathen
WARNING: This book is a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
“Emma Lathen” is a joint pseudonym of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart. I may refer to them here as a singular author, but I know the difference. 😉
What’s this book about?
John Putnam Thatcher is senior vice-president of the third largest bank in the world, the Sloan Guaranty Trust. His corporate responsibilities include the assumption of an important seat on the board of directors of a very large philanthropic trust indeed. The Leonard Dreyer Trust is closely affiliated with the Dreyer Chocolate Company, a huge corporate presence that sells what might be a quarter of the chocolate bars in the U.S. (If you think of this company as Hershey, you won’t be far off the mark.)
Companies that manufacture chocolate bars must of necessity trade on the Cocoa Exchange, which is a high-stakes enterprise like a mini-stock market, intimately connected with predicting what the price of cocoa beans will be at various points in the future. The individuals who master such valuable skills are few and far between, and although Amory Shaw trades on behalf of Dreyer, because of his experience and brilliance, everyone sees him as the Grand Poobah of the cocoa market.
The town of Dreyer, New York is the home of both the chocolate company and a large part of the action of this novel. First a smaller-scale trader appears to have drunkenly fallen into the swimming pool at his Dreyer motel; theories of accident are soon dismissed when Amory Shaw himself staggers onto the floor of the Cocoa Exchange with a knife in his back and dies without speaking. The police investigate Shaw’s fellow traders, attendant brokers, office staff and personal relationships. Meanwhile, Dreyer has chosen this time to launch a major new product, with a huge advertising blitz for the Old Glory bar. Simultaneously, everyone is annoyed with the activities of a pompous and self-absorbed auteur filming the Cocoa Exchange for a documentary for public television. But it falls to Thatcher to take the larger-scale view of events and figure out just what happened and whodunit.
Why is this book worth your time?
I do think it is worth your time; if I can say so without angering anyone, this is a first-rate second-rate mystery, and I don’t mean that at all disparagingly. The Emma Lathen novels set out merely to entertain and divert without invoking more than glancingly any major social issues or deep characterization values. The author deliberately avoided anything that would bring this novel into the first rank, but for what it sets out to do, it does it extremely well.This is a lighthearted and wry mystery that will amuse you but never upset you.
This is the 15th outing for John Putnam Thatcher and Emma Lathen now has the recipe down pat. There are a few paragraphs at the beginning about the nature of Wall Street. We briefly meet some of the cast of continuing characters of Thatcher’s associates at the Sloan; his immediate staff, all of whom have personal characteristics that are useful when exposition is required to the reader, and/or his dunderheaded boss Bradford Withers, who is constantly involving the Sloan in projects beyond his capacity to manage that require Thatcher to step in.
As a very senior executive with a taste for detection, Thatcher involves himself in the murder-related business affairs of such things as a chain of take-out chicken restaurants (Murder To Go), biotechnology companies (Green Grow the Dollars), and professional hockey teams (Murder Without Icing). And since he is required to do so without necessarily knowing anything about things like the Winter Olympics (Going for the Gold) or Persian carpets (By Hook or by Crook), the book’s characters are required quite naturally to explain themselves and their industry to Thatcher and hence to to the reader. It all works really well to produce what I’ve called an “information mystery”, where the reader is given a behind-the-scenes look at an unusual background in the course of solving a mystery.
The authors comprising Emma Lathen are a lawyer and an economist, and they definitely seem to know what they’re talking about in business terms. Their mastery of each industry depicted, including here the Cocoa Exchange, seems extensive and they have the knack of making it clear to you without resorting to huge blasts of information. Things come to the reader naturally by seeing the characters doing things and having them explained to Thatcher. Lathen also has the knack of creating simple characters with only a few traits or drives, but ones which the reader grasps immediately. There is also a strong overtone of, “Well, he may ably run a multi-million dollar chocolate company but he’s a nitwit in this particular respect,” and most readers will find this charming and humanizing.
This particular volume is merely the one that was at the top of my Lathen stacks; there are 24 novels in total, from 1961 to 1997. Some are better than others. A couple of my favourites are Murder To Go and Green Grow the Dollars, partly for personal reasons; both books have the ring of truth from my personal experience, and if you can find one that overlaps your own employment history you will enjoy it very much indeed, I’m sure. Lathen is at her best when she is discussing industry, and so ones like Ashes to Ashes, where the focus is on personalities, aren’t as enjoyable for me.
One more subtle problem is found in this book as well as a couple of others. Occasionally Lathen takes on a large industry and wants to show the reader the full supply chain, as it were; this book has a time-wasting narrative thread about people who actually sell chocolate bars for a living, and it has nothing to do with the murder. It veers dangerously close to the author wanting you to “walk out humming the research,” always a dangerous tendency. Lathen is at her best when she’s got a small cast of characters who are at the heart of the action.
Finally, she’s generally referred to as a “witty” writer and I have to agree. Her ability to sketch ridiculous characters is excellent; they’re nonsensical and simplified, but believable. She also has the knack of submerging her writing style to the exigencies of the narrative — avoiding the trap of “look at me, I’m writing!” that I find so difficult when, say, P.D. James goes off on the landscape for a page or two — except every once in a while she lets off a line that is wickedly bitter and funny. She lets you find out that characters are funny by what they say and do, rather than by being told that they are funny, and that’s the most enjoyable way to do it for the reader. Overall her writing style is gentle and intelligent.
This is as good a place to start with John Putnam Thatcher as any; if you enjoy your first one, all of them will be worth your time. I’ve enjoyed them all, and they stand up to re-reading.
My favourite edition
Really, Emma Lathen has not been well served by book designers. The Canadian Pocket edition shown at the top of this post (and which I used for this review) is one of a uniform edition that is relentlessly banal. The US Pocket edition manages to get across “business” and “murder” but avoids “chocolate”, which is a keyword for this book. The first US edition from simon & Shuster, depicted here, manages to get across “chocolate” and a little bit of violence, and the typography is very attractive; I’ll say that’s my favourite, but it’s the best of a bad lot. You can have a reasonable copy of it for US$60, which is perhaps a bit high. The UK first from Gollancz, with an overcomplicated ampersand that makes the reader think the title might be “Sweet So Low”, is about US$20.
There are two versions of the UK Penguin cover depicted here; I haven’t held this book to be sure, but I suspect that the minimalist version that has the chocolate bar coyly peeping out to the left of a white field has the same photograph of the smashed chocolate bar but continued over on the back of the volume. Really a very poor idea — wraparound covers have definitely got a place in paperback design but the whole idea is that you have to be able to tell what you’re looking at from a moment’s glance on the shelves of a bookstore.
There’s definitely room in the publishing world for a uniform edition of this intelligent author and I hope someone reprints her work with some considered design work.