Tuesday, 27 June 2017

By Hook or By Crook by Emma Lathen


published 1975




By Hook or by Crook 1By Hook or by Crook 2



There were four pictures – two of them curling with age and two sepia fragments apparently cut from larger photographs.

Paul Parajian said slowly, ‘They’re pictures of the family. My God that’s Veron’s wedding!’

Looking back at his younger self he ruefully shook his head.
In the next picture, the scene was again a wedding, the gathering larger and more informal.


By Hook or by Crook 3


[Another family picture:] Paul Parajian grasped the hand of a boy in shorts. Verone had a small girl and a teenager.

‘Must have been underexposed,’ remarked Muller. ‘It’s awfully dark.’

‘No.’ Paul Parajian was lost in the past. ‘Everybody’s in black. Katina died giving birth to Gregory. I had almost forgotten. Veron and Haig were his godparents.’


By Hook or By Crook 5


commentary: I remembered this as being the best of the Emma Lathen books, the ones featuring banker John Putman Thatcher as a sleuth, and a re-read confirmed it. This is short, smart, satisfying book, and one that tells you a lot about the rug trade, and about life in 1975. It has bankers, rug dealers, family politics, long-lost relatives, possible impersonation, a lot of money, and a lot of jokes. What more could you want in any book, let alone a crime story?

The setup is perfect: a rich family of Armenian rug-dealers is about to welcome a re-discovered sister to their fold – she has been living in Soviet Armenia since WW2, while the rest of the family made their way to the USA as migrants and refugees. Thatcher’s bank, Sloan Guaranty, is involved because they have been looking after her share of the company. But – is it possible she is an impostor? Who is to say? And what are the grown-up children of patriarch Paul up to? Could they be trying to oust the old man? (You don’t have to have read many crime novels – or in fact to have lived in the world for long – to know the answer to that one.) So might this elderly lady’s vote be very important?

She arrives, there is a magnificently bad-tempered lunch, and then they all troop over to the bank. And someone dies. There is a whole family-full of suspects, and the question marks over origins. More and more suspicious circumstances emerge. And then another murder…

John Thatcher of course takes a hand, along with his regular collection of colleagues, each with his own character, a fruitful source of jokes. The useless bank chief Brad Withers makes his usual hilarious cameo. When the stiff, ultra-correct Everett has to go to a wedding straight from a bank meeting we get this:
‘Worried about whether you are wearing the right thing, Ev? These days, anything goes,’ Charlie said, making a summer-weight business suit sound like rhinestone-studded blue jeans.
In fact this is one of the tiny details of the book that I found interesting, outside the crime content. This is a rich family, and a fancy wedding, but there really is an implication that weddings are somehow becoming weirdly informal – the bride and groom have been living together, they don’t need serious clothes for their lives, and a guest wears a pink pantsuit. I think people thought then that weddings would become more and more casual affairs, but this is far from the truth in the UK and in the US, I would submit. And now more than ever guests would be expected to submit to a spelled-out dresscode…

One thing that has (we like to think) changed since 1975, to some extent – there is a comparison between the Executive Dining Room and the employees’ canteen, and one issue is that there will be no female company in the senior restaurant.

There are marvellous descriptions of buying and selling rugs By Hook or by Crook 7at all levels: a warehouse in Tehran, a mysterious spot in Lansing, Michigan, loading bays and customs sheds, an upmarket store on Fifth Avenue. Rug-dealing always does seem to be a trade that hasn’t changed in a thousand years.

The rug photographs here were taken at a market near my home last week…

Lathen (which was a pen-name for two women writers) always researched her subjects carefully, and passed the results on to the reader in an entertaining and informative way without being pushy. There was a different trade or topic for each book, and she really excelled herself with this one: I loved all the detail of the rugs. And it was interesting that in 1975 there were prescient worries about the future of Iran, and fears that the supply of rugs from there was going to dry up.

More quiet but enjoyable moments: one business associate says he wouldn’t put it past Paul Parajian to have stage-managed the whole imbroglio. His wife appears for two minutes in the book, with this:
This was too much for a woman who frequently made pot-roast for Paul Parajian with her own two hands. ‘Homer!’ she chided. ‘Nobody but you would think that!’
Couldn’t be a shorter cameo, but how perfect is that?

And there is a magic moment where a man hums a snatch of music to our banker friends:
Thatcher was no romantic about the 30s; nobody on Wall St is. And Everett was not romantic about anything. But as they stood outside the customs shed looking vainly for a cab, both men fell silent, recalling something lost in the mists of youth – a clear, haunting sliver of sound piercing the night.  

Briefly Everett forgot he was a banker. ‘You know,’ he said. ‘They don’t make music they way they used to.’
This book is the jewel in the Emma Lathen crown, and I am so glad to have read it again.

There’s a blogpost on the 1969 Lathen book When in Greece here on the blog.

Armenian bride and wedding procession from the NYPL.

Engraving of a bereaved Armenian family from the British Library via Flickr.

































14 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. We did, didn't we? If anyone had told me 30 years ago that young women would be having giggling hendos, dressing up as meringues and changing their names in droves - well I would have declined to believe.

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  2. Oh, Moira, I am going to have to read this again! I have practically all of them. She (they?) is such an entertaining writer and you really feel you have learned something, too. I have a soft spot for Murder to Go.

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    1. Thanks Chrissie, I am glad to re-discover them, and will head for that one next. I love her (their) sly wit...

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  3. I always liked the character of John Putnam Thatcher very much, Moira. And this one has the added appeal of the inside look at the rug business, as well as the inside look at the family. What's not to love? I honestly think the Emma Lathen writing team doesn't always get the attention these books deserve.

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    1. These books really could do with being revived, Margot, I'm sure many people would enjoy them - for the great plots, the historical detail, the characters, and the jokes.

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  4. Actually I think I am a little in love with John Putnam Thatcher. It turns out in one of the novels, that he knows how to do the tango!

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    1. Very understandable Chrissie, and that's even without the tango. But that does add an extra layer...

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  5. Ditto Michael Innes. I can sleep soundly at night, knowing I don't have these two in the stacks!

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    1. No-one could say you don't have enough already...

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  6. I agree with Christine, I am in love with John Putnam Thatcher. I have been reading these for years and hope to reread more of them. There is something I like about the writing and the characters are great.

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    1. He is an absolute charmer, as well as being able to solve crimes. What more could we want in our mystery stories?

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  7. Moira: I read almost all of the John Putnam Thatcher (it would never seem right to use only one of the names) series as they were published. Why cannot readers have more erudite urbane, yet unpretentious, sleuths? I thought of him as a role model for modern bankers.

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    1. Yes indeed. And I would expect you to like him - I would bet JPT is very well-dressed as well as courteous and charming. That's what I call a hero!

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