Ashes to Ashes by Emma Lathen

published 1971

Ashes to Ashes 2

[Banker John Putnam Thatcher is attending a funeral, along with a semi-colleague, a real estate executive]

Thatcher absorbed his companion’s sartorial splendour. Unger was at all times something of a dandy. His sideburns artfully elongated his face and his tailoring smacked of the Edwardian. Nor was he usually somber. Cheery waistcoats peeked out of his lapels, his ties were exotic exercises in contrast. Today, however, he was a muted symphony. The light gray of socks and shirt underlined the darker gray of tailoring. The whole ensemble was enriched by a tie of deepest purple.

Ashes to Ashes 3

commentary: So much of this book is very 1970s – but so much more is as relevant today as when it was written. Emma Lathen (pseudonym for two women co-authors) wrote their series of Thatcher books over more than 30 years: each book featured the lovely John Putnam Thatcher of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, a widowed man in his prime who investigated crimes. (He also achieved the impossible – made both bankers and the name Thatcher seem acceptable and even lovable).

Each book concentrated on a particular area of finance or business – for example By Hook or by Crook looked at the world of Middle Eastern rugs and their import and sale, while Murder Makes the Wheels go Around looks at the car industry and Detroit. The two women obviously had considerable expertise, and great research. All the books make you feel very well-informed about the business area within – and they certainly slide down easily.

Ashes to Ashes 1

In Ashes to Ashes, Thatcher’s bank is funding a real estate deal, in which the Catholic Church is selling off a parochial school in Queens. An upmarket high-rise apartment building is to be built on the land. This is obviously lucrative for the diocese, but the local parents are up in arms – they went to St Bernadette’s, and they want their children to go there too. But the parish says the school is not viable, and doesn’t have enough children there.

Now I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I read that story in the newspaper last week: the divisive and agonizing stories of small schools, and difficult decisions, and money vs education – the issues are still going strong.

And the side comments on the lobbying parents are also still relevant: here’s Thatcher wondering about the local amateur activists:
He knew that professional diplomats and union negotiators can husband their energies during preliminaries such as settling location, agenda and order of precedence. But amateurs, in his opinion, all too often exhausted themselves on these trivia – only to reach the bargaining table with additional grievances and very short fuses indeed.
All the scenes of the committee, the parents, the chitchat and the arguing are wonderfully well-done, as if transcribed from life. Anyone who has ever taken part in any campaign will recognize all the tropes.

There are hilarious scenes where other groups with a grudge against the Catholic hierarchy try to hijack the protests: there are women giving out birth control pills and Hare Krishna Catholics chanting. The picture of the Catholic church – and this was an era when it was undergoing severe turmoil and under considerable pressure - is fascinating: again, there are time differences. It is expected that the Parish Priest should be able to tell laypeople what to do, and this will be respected (it isn’t, but the assumption is there) in a way that I think would not be current now. But at the same time there is an expectation of great changes coming soon: I think the people in the book were expecting that, say, married priests (as a general thing) would be coming any time soon. So they were wrong. There was this splendid discussion:
‘Father James tried to lecture me about Christian marriage.’ 
‘Well if they do away with celibacy and he gets himself a wife that’s the last we’ll hear of that.’ 
Pat was immediately lost in speculation . Who had the potential, she asked, to make the wife that Father James deserved? ‘There’s Sharon Farrell,’ she answered happily. ‘that girl is going to turn into a real henpecker, I can see it coming.’

Thatcher as ever is charming:
To show he was on the side of the angels – though their precise location was growing more obscure by the moment - he agreed that he was against sending wreckers over a living rampart of human bodies.
There is a friendly conversation about immigration, religion and the flight to the suburbs that is as clear and helpful and sociological as anything I’ve ever read on the topic. And the dangers of looking back with rose-tinted glasses:
The big thing they don’t remember is that everybody was held together because they were poor together. And the one thing no-one has ever wanted to be is poor.
One of the joys of the series is that there is a raft of recurring characters, each with his or her own attributes and opportunities for jokes. Thatcher’s secretary, the estimable Miss Corsa, has a big role in this one, as she understands the RC communities, and there is a fabulous moment where one of the protestors refers to her as ‘Rosie’, which Thatcher himself would never dare do. Meanwhile, Charlie Trinkam is doing his own research by seeing a former nun called Catherine and collecting her views.

The book is an excellent murder mystery as well as an interesting look at the issues, and a hilarious entertainment - what more could you ask for?

I have one question about the book: One of the main characters is called Francis Omara: he is a Catholic funeral director in Queens. To me, his name is crying out to be actually O’Mara: there doesn’t seem to be anyone else in this world with the name Omara. And yet it is hard to believe that the Lathen team or their publisher would make a mistake…

With thanks to Christine Poulson, who recommended this one to me.

There are a couple of other Emma Lathen books on the blog.

Donald Westlake’s 1975 Brothers Keepers looks at similar issues in a completely different way: His hero is a monk whose NY monastery is going to be sold for building potential.

And the Jane Haddam books often dealt with churches and their relations with the community.

The men’s clothes are adverts of the era.

The other picture – by Glmike523 from Wikimedia Commons – shows a parochial school in Brooklyn, The Annunciation. ‘No longer used as a Parochial School, it remains a neighborhood landmark built in 1886.’


  1. I'm happy to see a John Putnam Thatcher book here, Moira. It's a great series, and, yes, the themes are as relevant now as they were when the books were written. The 'Lathen' team got that right, in my opinion. One of the things I like about Thatcher as a character is that he doesn't come on overly strong, if I can put it that way. It makes him more approachable.

    1. I always think JPT is a lovely man, he's a bit of a book-crush of mine!

  2. I knew you'd love it, Moira! And now I want to read it all over again. The Lathen team were such consummate professional.

    1. You were absolutely right. Every time I read one of their books I think 'No, this one is the best'. And I think this one really might be.

  3. Moira, I liked the excerpt. It's so richly written. I can't say I have read a murder mystery with humour.

    1. The two writers have a wonderful style, as well as a great sense of humour. And the jokes do not get in the way of the story.

  4. Moira; I loved reading the stories of John Putnam Thatcher decades ago. Not many distinguished understated men of integrity in crime fiction past or present.

    1. I agree with you Bill, and I actually think of you as the John Putnam Thatcher of Canadian lawyers. The gentlemen's styling in it would also appeal I think...

    2. Oh my, thanks (blush), I appreciate the kind words.

  5. I just read Brewing Up a Storm, the next to last book in the series, last month. Reread it, that is. I had forgotten that I had already read it. Every time I read one of Lathen's books, I want to read all of them, but of course I am spacing them out for more enjoyment.

    And I bought a paperback copy of A Shark Out of Water at the book sale this weekend, even though I have a hardback copy. I think I really have not read that one.

    1. I don't think I have read either of those two, and like you I just want to read or re-read all of them.

  6. Probably more tempted by the Westlake you referenced, but I don't think I have that one in the stash.

    1. I think it's a bit unusual for Westlake, but it did tempt me to read more by him.


Post a Comment