Obituary: Mary Jane Latsis

Jack Adrian
Saturday 22 November 1997 00:02
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Mary Jane Latsis, writer: born Chicago, Illinois 1927; died Plymouth, New Hampshire 3 November 1997.

Mary Jane Latsis had a split personality in more ways than one. With her partner in (fictional) crime, Martha Henissart, she was doubly pseudonymous, the two of them writing superior detective novels under the name "Emma Lathen" and also under "R.B. Dominic".

In crime fiction, the collaborative cloak is not particularly unusual, and, for a variety of reasons, can more often than not be highly effective, each partner supplying, usually refreshingly, some essential - though sometimes quite minor - ingredient the other lacks.

"Ellery Queen" and "Barnaby Ross" were the cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee; "Francis Beeding", "John Somers" and "David Pilgrim" were J.L. Palmer and Hilary St George Saunders; "Q. Patrick", "Patrick Quentin" and "Jonathan Stagge" were Hugh Wheeler and Richard Webb.

However, Latsis and Henissart, in both mood and outlook, and general charm, inhabited an essential cosy corner of the criminous universe, and were perhaps far closer to the two British chroniclers of the spy Tommy Hambledon, "Manning Coles" (Adelaide Manning and Cyril Coles).

Latsis was born in Chicago in 1927, grew up in Forest Park, and was educated at Wellesley Collage, Massachusetts, where she majored in economics and first met Henissart. She later gained a Public Administration degree at Harvard, had some involvement with the Central Intelligence Agency, then worked as an economist (her day-job, as it were) for the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome.

She returned to the US to teach at Wellesley, and met up again with Martha Henissart. Almost at once they began a collaboration which lasted virtually 40 years.

It was an entirely fruitful and enjoyable one. Both having had hard experience of the world of corporate finance, as well as the corridors of power in both Wall Street and Washington, they chose as their "detective" a corporate banker of mature years (to give him gravitas and experience). He was certainly getting on a bit in 1961, when their first novel, Banking On Death, was issued in the United States (a year later in the UK), and was thus positively Methuselah-esque in the 1990s.

The Thatcher series is a triumph of witty characterisation and intelligent plotting. Characters occur and re-occur throughout the years in delightful procession (especially Thatcher's chief, the bank's feckless, at times idiotic, and often vacationing, President Brad Withers).

There is sharp irony: most of the books make some social point, or attack some absurdity in the system. And there is much pleasure for the reader in being confronted by, in book after book, a world - that of high finance - that becomes less and less baffling, thanks to the authors' skilful explications. Pleasure, too, in exploring what seems, at first sight, to be utterly alien milieux in which, nonetheless, financial shenanigans can occur: Sweet And Low (1974, the cocoa exchange); Ashes To Ashes (1971, the funeral business); and Green Grow the Dollars (1982, the commercial and murderous possibilities in big-cropping tomatoes). All of these, and other, strange worlds are gulped down by the reader, carried along by the swift pace of the narrative and the sharply drawn and involving characters.

Their collaborative method was unusual, since they wrote simultaneously, Latsis working on Chapter Five, say, in longhand on yellow paper, while Henissart pounded away at Chapter Six, two-fingered, on an old Hermes 3,000 portable typewriter, both following a rough outline, then smoothing out all the plot-knots and inconsistencies at the end of the book.

Latsis and Henissart delivered an "Emma Lathen" roughly every 18 months. By the late 1960s other plots and other characters were beating at their creative door, and they transformed themselves again into "R.B. Dominic", whose crime-solver was the Democrat Congressman Ben Safford, from Ohio, his adventures set mainly against a Washington backcloth.

Although "Emma Lathen" slowed down during the 1980s ("Dominic" discontinuing the Safford series), a final urbane and civilised John Putman Thatcher entertainment was finished by Latsis and Henissart before the former's death, and is due for imminent publication.

- Jack Adrian

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