One virtue of the detective genre is its capacity to provide not just amusement, but also education. Because details matter so much in a detective story, because they are the raw material from which a writer fashions clues, a story of this type can easily double as a quasi-journalistic primer on a particular area of social or economic life. A detective novelist, by placing “background” information on a given industry or subculture in the narrative foreground, confers a sense of dramatic immediacy upon that corner of the world—the kind of immediacy that naturally attaches to a murder investigation. By that measure, at any rate, this mystery set on Wall Street must count as a success. As a formal problem in deduction, Accounting for Murder is neither a “bull” nor a “bear.” Lathen makes little attempt to juggle a multitude of clues or to divert suspicion from one character to the next over the course of the tale. Lurking within the novel, however, there is one deftly hidden clue that any reader might (but probably won’t) glean—and that John Putnam Thatcher, an investment banker without peer and a reluctant amateur sleuth, does glean. More impressive than the murder plot is the insider’s tour that Lathen conducts through the halls of corporate America, circa 1964. The glimpse offered here of that go-go culture is highly satirical, but Lathen’s use of satire hardly lessens the accuracy of her portrait.
[ADDENDUM: I wrote this review a long time ago, before I’d absorbed the lesson that if you’re reviewing a work as plot-driven as a detective story, you should say something about its plot. I also read this book a long time ago—which means that I have no memory of the plot that I can draw upon in order to flesh out this this all-too-skeletal sketch of the book. I should revisit Lathen. “Her” early works, especially, offer a gimlet-eyed peek inside a long-gone business world that’s reminiscent of the world shown in the TV series Mad Men. (The quote marks around “her” nod toward the fact that Lathen is actually the pen name of a pair of businesswomen, Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart. Along with the Thatcher series, they produced several novels under the name R.B. Dominic. That series, about a U.S. Congressman named Ben Stafford, presumably does for Washington, D.C., what the Lathen books do for Wall Street.)]