Emma Lathen’s “Green Grow The Dollars”

Green Grow The Dollars by Emma Lathen (NY: Pocket Books, 1982)

Previously I reviewed a book by two male economists, called Murder at the Margin. Well, they weren’t the only economists who wrote mystery books! A much more famous mystery series was written by a dynamic female duo who met as students at Harvard University. Martha Henissart went on to become an economist.  Mary Jane Latsis went on to become an attorney. Together they wrote twenty-four books under the pseudonym of “Emma Lathen”. (from LATsis plus HENissart)

Emma Lathen is vastly underrated. It’s difficult to find her books these days. But they’re even more timely than ever. Lathen’s hero is John Putnam Thatcher, head of The Sloan Guaranty and Trust in New York City. Lathen’s heroine is Thatcher’s ever-reliable secretary Miss Corsa, who often catches small details her boss overlooks. And frequently, those small details launch her boss, Thatcher, right into the throes of a mystery involving financial shenanigans.

When I read these books years ago, I knew nothing about investment banks. Now, however, we all know a lot more about those institutions than we did. Recently I came across Lathen’s Green Grow the Dollars at a free book exchange nearby. Re-reading this story of the patent battle between two genetically-altered tomato researchers at seed companies in Wisconsin and Puerto Rico, I enjoyed it twice as much as the first time.

Since the first time I’d read it, I’ve been to professional conferences of the type the book describes in such sardonic detail. I understand the terms Thatcher tosses around with Charlie Trinkham, Walter Bowman, and Everett Gabler, his subordinates at the bank. And I appreciate even more than before Rose Corsa’s discretion and wisdom, having met so many women AA’s who were so much more clued in than their bosses during my career as an employee.

The only thing that seems dated now is the fecklessness of the bank’s President. Heads of financial institutions these days have to be much more savvy about what’s going on in their banks than the Sloan’s Bradford Withers, who in this book was preoccupied mainly with his sailing trip to Nicaragua. Thatcher, as usual, deftly avoided his boss’ invitation to lunch, preferring to ask a client to dine out with him instead.

Lathen’s mysteries are well-plotted and teach a lot about the world of high finance and the world of human fallibility. But what isn’t acknowledged is her brilliant writing and her wit. She can be as literary and biting as the best mystery writers today. Here’s a prime example of her drollness as she introduces the reader to Howard Pendleton, a biological researcher who claims fame for creating a tomato that grows year round:

“Ditchdiggers enjoy less prestige, and less take-home pay, than brain surgeons. Asking why, economists have come up with more explanations than you can shake a stick at. All of them are wrong. The differential exists because mankind esteems what it does not understand. As history proves, incomprehension always informs the prevailing standard of value. Keepers of the people’s secrets–Zulu indunas, kings imbued with Divine Right, Mahdis who saw what others did not–were yesterday’s top dogs. Today we have scientists.

So long as they are the only ones who see precisely why E equals MC2 , scientists have us where they want us.

But contrary to widespread superstition, they are not all Albert Einsteins. They are actually a representative cross section of the general population, with the important reservation that whatever they are doing is totally baffling to the rest of us.

Until of course, it cures us, blows us up, or lands us on the moon.”

Copyright © 2011 Nancy K. Humphreys

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Raoul Martinez on 04.28.11 at 12:31 pm

Excellent Nancy. Very interesting and informative. Keep it up. RAOUL

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