Emma Lathen’s “A Place for Murder”

A Place for Murder by Emma Lathen (NY: Pocket Books, 1963)

Normally I get books at my local library. Given that I live in a poorer city in the Bay Area, the library doesn’t have money to buy new books. The blessing of no funds is that the library doesn’t throw out the old classics to make room for new books. It has a particularly good collection of classic mystery books. However, I didn’t pick up a copy of A Place for Murder by Emma Lathen at my library.

There is a new business in town. It’s a free “lending library,” open only on weekends. You drop off books you don’t want there and take home books you do want. So how can that be a model for a small business you ask? Its a very simple model. I have to admire the entrepreneur who thought it up.

The owner keeps and sells any valuable old books that are donated. The rest can be taken home by anyone else. These books are placed in no order on the shelves, and the staff are there primarily to sort out donations. So, you must browse this bookstore to find what you want. When you “check out” books from the bookstore the staff stamp “NOT FOR RESALE. THIS IS A FREE BOOK” in the front. That encourages people to bring the books back to the store.

I doubt the proprietor spends much on rent. The free books storefront is in a low rent area, and even in high-rent areas in the Bay Area, such as Solano Avenue in Berkeley, commercial properties now have a 20 percent vacancy rate. The only problem with this idea is that it’s a “brick & mortar” store, not an online store. Eventually the local supply of books people don’t want will dwindle. So I’m getting my mystery books now while it’s still in business. A Place for Murder is the second Lathen book I’ve found there.

The place for murder

The place for murder is a town called Shaftesbury in a rich farm area in Connecticut. As you may recall from my review of Lathen’s Green Grow the Dollars the hero of the series is John Thatcher, the senior vice-president of the Sloan Guaranty Trust in New York City. It is Brad Withers, the gadfly President of the bank, who sends Thatcher up to Connecticut to look into a property in dispute in a nasty divorce between Wither’s brother-in-law and his wealthy wife. Both the soon to be ex-wife and the new bride want the property.

Emma Lathen is a pseudonym. The real authors were college friends, Mary Jane Latsis, an attorney, and Martha Henissart, an economist. (The name Lathen comes from LATsis plus HENissart). These books, written in the 1960s and 1970s, are now quaint reminders of a banking industry long gone by now. Thatcher and his associates don’t deal in prop trading desks or derivatives, they deal in businesses, stocks and bonds, and real estate. Nevertheless, the human dramas so wittily captured by Emma Lathen are timeless.

My favorite scene in this book is where Thatcher, annoyed by the interruption in his bucolic plans for the weekend when he is sent to Connecticut, takes it out on a junior subordinate by loading him up with a lot of extra work to do over the weekend too. Miss Corsa, Thatcher’s organized, impeccable, and pragmatic secretary discreetly lets Thatcher know why his junior executive isn’t happy about not having time at home over the weekend.

“She’s expecting,” explains Miss Corsa, eyes modestly downcast, when he demanded enlightenment.

“Expecting what?” asks Thatcher while absorbed with looking at papers on Miss Corsa’s desk.

Miss Corsa was outraged, “A baby!”

Thatcher, however, doesn’t relent. Eventually he, his junior executive, and most of the bank’s top executives wind up in Connecticut to deal with the fallout from a murder discovered during the prenuptial celebrations and involving elk antlers donated for the reception by Brad Withers.

None of the executives is happy about being there. But the President of their bank, as usual, is totally preoccupied with his personal life and utterly incapable of handling any financial transactions of the bank.

A reason for murder

Some things about money don’t change no matter how it is made. The famous divide between and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, two early 20th century novelists, still stands. Are the rich different than the rest of us or do “they just have more money,” as Hemingway retorted?

Emma Lathen throws down the gauntlet in favor of Fitzgerald’s position. In fact, the solution to the murder lies in understanding that the rich are different from you and me. Long before Robert Kiyosaki wrote his first Rich Dad Poor Dad book to teach us how the rich are different, the two women who called themselves “Emma Lathen” created a fictional character, who by virtue of his unique socio-economic status as senior vice-president of a bank, could clearly see the differences that Kiyosaki now writes about.

Robert Kiyosaki, in his books and seminar series, posits a particular mentality that he believes the “rich dad” possesses and the “poor dad” doesn’t. Rich dad owns assets. Poor dad owns only his own labor. That creates the difference in outcomes for each dad. Rich dad’s assets earn money for him even as he does not have to work. Poor dad, on the other hand, must work for a living. When he cannot work, he slides from being middle class downwards into being poor.

In the area of Shaftesbury, Connecticut where Sloan bank president Brad Withers and his rich relatives and friends have houses, the wealthy own farms where they raise livestock. Connecticut, as the New York bankers caustically note, is a lousy place to raise Angus cows. The land is barren and rocky and there is a scarcity of land too, making it quite expensive.

But that’s of no importance to the rich. They aren’t in business to make money. They are in business to lose money. These are wealthy people who inherited immense sums and must manage to hang onto it in the face of an government that has the power to take it away at any time.

The reality of the rich is that taxes are a game rigged in their favor. They’ve spent decades sending lobbyists to Washington and funding candidates in both political parties who will preserve those tax breaks for them. Robert Kiyosaki touches on this fact in his books and Ed Slott, a tax accountant, makes it even more explicit in his books and his PBS specials about taxes.

Two major ways the rich make money now via our tax laws are (1) tax deferral, often until after death, and (2) constant attacks by politicians on progressive taxation in favor of either flat taxes on everyone or regressive taxes that favor the rich over the poor.

The third way, now much discussed in relation to Mr. Romney’s candidacy is the one Lathen focused on. The wealthy in A Place for Murder (copyright 1963) must work and spend diligently to lose money in order to get tax write-offs. These are the “itemized expenses” recorded on IRS Schedule C, such as the full cost of farm equipment, or the “capital losses” recorded on IRS Schedule D for the year end sale of stock at a loss to offset their capital gains. Write-offs enable the rich to pay little or no taxes in proportion to their income.

Why only a Thatcher could solve the mystery

Lathen doesn’t just depict the lives of the wealthy and their tax maneuvers in this book. She also takes us into the lives of those who serve the wealthy. The lifestyles of servants and of the business people in Shaftesbury are also visible and part of the the plot.

In particular, the wealthy people in this area of Connecticut happen to love show dogs. Simultaneously with the divorce dispute the bankers are there to settle and the wedding, there is the famed Housatonic Dog Show taking place. All of these things converge with much ado at the largest hotel-restaurant-bar in the town.

John Thatcher, as senior vice-president of a large bank, is in a unique position to sort it all out and really see what’s going on at the Shaftesbury Inn.

On the one hand, Thatcher is the only executive in the bank who is considered high enough in wealth and social class to be invited into the lives and homes of the Connecticut upper class. On the other hand, Thatcher is an employee of the Sloan Guaranty Trust.

However huge his salary and bonuses may have been, Thatcher is an income-earner, not an investor or business owner. Thatcher is on the wrong side the vertical line in Robert Kiyoaki’s cash-flow diagram. Thatcher’s on the left side and not the right side of that line. As a result he is not classified in Kiyosaki’s books as one of the “rich”.

Thatcher himself understands this distinction. He views himself as an employee. He shares the same problems as any other employee in having his life heavily impacted by those who pay him, those who work under him, and those who are his clients. Thatcher likes his job though. Thatcher likes working for a living. Thatcher also knows the true value of a dollar, whether earned by hard labor and saving, or through investing and owning. Knowing all about money IS Thatcher’s job.

In short, Thatcher, unlike the wealthy people he rubs shoulders with and his boss, Sloan president Brad Withers, understands the ins and outs of how businesses and investments can make money as well as how businesses and investments can be made to lose money. That knowledge is what enables Thatcher to spot the murderer and solve this case.

In the end, being who they are and what they are, Thatcher and his underlings all heave large sighs of relief at finally being able to board the company plan in Shaftesbury, Connecticut and get back to their real work in New York City.

Follow Nancy Humphreys on Twitter @brucenomics