Death Shall Overcome by Emma Lathen

published 1966

Edward Parry stood in an alcove with Nat Schuyler. Like everyone present, he looked simonized for the occasion. The lurking fear of television had triggered a wave of five o’clock shaves and clean shirts. In all other visible aspects, Parry was a credit to Nat Schuyler’s acumen— that is, he was a replica of a Wall Street financier with a dark skin. The net result was that his teeth and shirt looked cleaner than anybody else’s. His slow, considered speech and steady handclasp as he acknowledged their greeting confirmed the impression of integrity, reliability and conservatism. A man of property at every point. In a happier era he might have been a Republican.

commentary: Each of the highly-enjoyable Emma Lathen books deals with a different aspect of business, finance, or American life. When they are listed out, this one has the word ‘integration’ beside it. The wary reader is quite nervous as to what a 1966 Wall St novel will make of the subject, but the book though ‘very much of its time’ (as I always say, about everything in the slightest bit worrying, but in a book that I like) takes most of the hurdles relatively well.

The plot trigger is that an old-established Wall St firm has taken a big decision:
“Schuyler & Schuyler want to take in a new partner and get him a seat on the Exchange.”
“He’s a Black man,” said Everett Gabler quietly.

And it is salutary to realize what a big deal this was in 1966. There is trouble from all sides over the decision – including objections from a financial firm who do a lot of business in Harlem, and don’t want their investors lured away to the mainstream. There are threats, and deaths, and attacks: and there are large-scale demonstrations. All this is dealt with in a basically-liberal-minded but even-handed way by Lathen, just as you would expect.

Blog reader Aurora recommended this one after reading my entry on the splendid Ashes to Ashes by Lathen (on the blog last year). She said
I ADORE Lathen, the books are all so fun! She writes a hilarious riot, I must say. One of my personal favorites is Death Shall Overcome, where the New York Stock Exchange "welcomes" its first black member. There are a few delightful clothing moments, and Thatcher gets to deliver the line, "You are in great beauty tonight, Mrs. Parry," which I find a lovely compliment. The bank gets invaded by protesters (who are pro Edward Parry, the new member in question) and Thatcher fights back in a magnificent style.
And I totally agree with her – this is an excellent entry in a marvellous series. And it is indeed hilarious – Lathen has set up the characters surrounding series sleuth John Putnam Thatcher in such a way that (although these are by no means comedy books) the jokes just keep on coming, she fires them out one after another.

You have to know something about Bradford Withers, the President of the Sloan bank, to know why this is so funny:
“What do you think the Board of Governors will do about Parry?” Thatcher intervened to inquire. 
Bradford Withers’ chief virtue, as well as his most outstanding defect, was transparent truthfulness. “I haven’t the remotest idea,” he said with enough hauteur in his voice to suggest that the Board of Governors of the New York Stock Exchange was not the sort of group that a Withers cared to understand… 
Going to the office in the morning was, under certain conditions, perfectly reasonable behavior to the president of the Sloan. Going there after dinner smacked of the bizarre.

Then there’s this about another character:
“Glover tells me that Owen Abercrombie has gone crazy.” 

“How could he tell?” asked Thatcher with genuine interest.  
“Says he’s talking about a Wall Street Defense Council,” said Robichaux. “With rifles. You remember they had to take his uncle Basil off the Floor in a straitjacket, in ’29?”

There are the demostrators and pickets hanging round a distinguished law firm:
Idly Thatcher inquired about the message of the placards which had descended on Carruthers, Broadside & Pettigrew. “That’s just it!” said Carruthers with unusual heat. “Most of them simply said ‘Justice.’ And that’s a fine thing to be parading around a law office!”
There is a weird passage discussing what might happen to a gun which was furtively dropped off at the dump at a suburban area called Katonah
“I understand they’re sifting through the Katonah dump. It would be just like that lunatic to toss his rifle there.” 

Trinkam was sympathetic. “Hell of a job.” 

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s a model dump. Won a prize or something,” Jackson said, displaying yet another piece of esoteric information. “Just the sort of thing Katonah would have.” 

“Then it’s the kind of dump that will probably have vaporized this rifle within twenty-four hours.” 

“No,” said Thatcher and Jackson simultaneously. Charlie Trinkam every now and then displayed a powerful ignorance of life as it is lived outside the confines of a metropolitan district. He would have been far more at home in the center of Peking than in South Orange, New Jersey. 

“Scavengers,” explained Thatcher clearly. “In fact, in Katonah, it’s probably antique dealers who inspect the throwaways.” 

“That’s right. A good rifle would be picked up right away. One of the dealers got a fine Oriental off the trash heap up in Westchester.” 

Charlie moodily pecked at his salad, unprepared to contemplate this strange and exotic way of life.

I quoted that at length because it is to me so very much the kind of passage that is typical and so enjoyable about the Lathen books – not really relevant but funny and weird and fascinating. (Katonah is a real place, and the chances are that this info is entirely accurate about the town dump in 1966.)

There is a splendid glittering fund-raiser full of important characters all dressed up: I was sorry not to be able to find suitable images of that, but the available illos tend to show marches and demonstrations and speakers with megaphones – not a black tie event with women in evening dress.

In fact I was unable to find any integrated pictures at all of a business situation.

The images I have used are from fashion ads of the era.

Thanks again to Aurora for recommending the book.


  1. I'd forgotten just how much wit there is in this series, Moira. Thanks for the reminder. And it is to this writing team's credit that they have a balanced portrayal of this situation. It certainly wouldn't have been easy to do at that time. Another thing I like about this series is that it presents even not-at-all glamourous businesses in an interesting light. That takes writing skill!

    1. They were a really good duo weren't they? As you say, they achieved a difficult balance in a number of different areas, and wrote such enjoyable books.

  2. Not very much about actual clothes, though appearance is closely related.

    ''“Schuyler & Schuyler want to take in a new partner and get him a seat on the Exchange.”
    “He’s a Black man,” said Everett Gabler quietly.'
    ... and what if she were a Black (or merely black) woman?

    'Going to the office in the morning was, under certain conditions, perfectly reasonable behavior to the president of the Sloan. Going there after dinner smacked of the bizarre.'
    It looks as if 'dinner' is being used to mean the midday meal here, which would certainly be bizarre for someone like Bradford Withers.

    1. 1. I'm not black - but I can remember reporting in to the Marine base at Camp Hansen, Okinawa* in 1983 as a first lieutenant and having the camp commander look at me and remark bitterly "There's a typhoon coming, I have protesters outside the main gate -- and now YOU."

      (*which until the 1990's had no women on base except for two Japanese ladies d'un certain age who ran the snack bar. I was a temporary 2-week assignment).

      2. Lathen is referring to the evening meal. Dinner at noon and supper in the evening were for the working class, not bankers.

    2. Thanks both.
      Roger: yes, there were some even bigger changes coming - and in a comparatively short time. And Bradford Withers behaviour is always eccentric and always a joy...
      Shay: equally, very big changes comparatively quickly in the military too..

  3. I will have to re-read this one. I was going to say that has been a long time, but I read it for the second time in 2011, and yet still remember little about. I was surprised when the last excerpt you used talked about Katonah and Westchester, both of which are used in Nero Wolfe novels. I should not be surprised since both series are set in New York. I agree with all you have to say about Lathen, I loved all her books (although I may have missed the last one or two).

    1. I think there are a few I missed first time around, and plenty for me to re-read. they very much stand up to a re-read, and feel like valuable social history rather than out-of-date.

  4. "Like everyone present, he looked simonized for the occasion"

    I did not know the verb "simonize" so on reading this sentence I could only think of simony. It rather confused me, I could not understand why they would look as if they bought ecclesiastical offices.

    1. Dealerships in the US used to make cars they were selling look better with cleaning/polishing products from the Simoniz firm - a process known colloquially as simonizing.

      It is a term I had not heard for a while - it seems to still be a thing.

    2. Thanks both - I have only seen it in American books, and have worked out what it means. Now proper church simony - that would be a business for John Putnam Thatcher to investigate! I am sure he would look into the economics of it very closely.

  5. "Accounting for Death" - which I read last year - is not just a cracking good mystery, it's a great window into what business processes were like before computers.

    1. That is another of my favorite Lathens- in all fairness, most of her books get the sobriquet "my favorite Lathen!" AfD has Miss Corsa swooning over a general! (Or as close as sensible Miss Corsa ever gets.)

    2. I just checked, and Accounting for Murder is one of the last books I read before beginning blogging! I may now have to read it again. I read a lot of them back when they were new, and have been re-reading them at a rate of about one a year. Which other ones would you both recommend?

  6. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! It seemed like your sort of book. Lathen is very quotable, I always think. There's so much fun trivia in her books, and unlike, say, Dan Brown, it feels organic and not like the author read a book of trivia on X topic and is jamming their research in to prove they did some.

    1. Yes, very much, so thanks for the recommendation! Indeed I know exactly what you mean about the distinction: it never feels like research, just the stuff they knew... So - as I say above - which one next?

    2. I adore them so much it's hard to pick! I would start with Banking for Death, which is the very first one in the series. You don't have to read them in order, but that one sets up an introduction to the characters in a useful way for new readers. A Place for Murder is wonderful if you like dogs. Accounting for Murder and Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round (set in Michigan and car country) are delights. Murder Against the Grain (Russian grain shipments) is excellent, and so are Murder to Go (fast food chicken which makes me hungry whenever I read it) and Pick Up Sticks (hiking the Appalachian Trail.) Murder Without Icing is such fun, and I don't even like hockey! Double, Double, Oil and Trouble has some lovely clothing moments I know you'd enjoy (plus it's fun), Going for the Gold is utterly hilarious (set during the Lake Placid Olympics), and so is Brewing up a Storm. A Shark out of Water is fantastic, I knew nothing of Poland's history with horse breeding and it's fascinating. And yes, I've just recommended most of the series!!! I'm stopping now or I'll run out of superlatives!!

  7. John Putnam Thatcher has always epitomized the suave well dressed businessmen that I imagined populated Manhattan in the 1960's. Conservative in attire and always honourable I cannot think of contemporary comparable sleuth.

    1. I can absolutely see you and John Putnam Thatcher being friends Bill! I am sure you are the JPT of the Canadian law world... Or else he is the Bill Selnes of Wall St. What a great leading character he was.


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