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Literature / Ben Safford Mysteries

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The Ben Safford Mysteries follow an Ohio congressman who repeatedly stumbles into murder mysteries that involve people from his district.

The books are co-written by Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Hennisart, who used the nom de plume "B.R. Dominic". They also wrote the better known John Putnam Thatcher series under the pen name of Emma Lathen.

There are seven books in the series:

1. Murder Sunny Side Up (1968)

2. Murder in High Place (1969)

3. There is No Justice (1971)

4. Epitaph for a Lobbyist (1974)

5. Murder Out of Commission (1976)

6. The Attending Physician (1980)

7. Unexpected Developments (1983)


  • Amoral Attorney: There is No Justice features a Supreme Court nominee with some skeletons in his closet. Specifically, in the past, he secretly represented both sides during high stakes court cases, filing the paperwork for one side under his wife's name.
  • Badass Bureaucrat: In The Attending Physician, HEW employee Charlene Georgian is good at detecting corruption and deception amidst mountains of paperwork. When it looks like the doctors scamming Medicaid will pull a Karmaa Houdini, Charlene turns whistleblower. She also alerts several patients -all from welfare families who will greatly benefit from lawsuit awards- how the doctors have been using their names to bill for nonexistent operations. This leads to multiple malpractice and defamation lawsuits. When Ben regretfully tells Charlene she may lose her job for stealing and illegally distributing files, Charlene and her lawyer reply that there was no actual theft or misuse.
    Mike Isham: Are you aware that every document mailed by Mrs. Georgian was simply a duplicate of information already forwarded to the same recipient?
    Ben: Then why were her mailings such a bombshell?
    Charlene: Because the way the HEW mails the information out, nobody can make head or tail of it. I pruned.
  • Believing Their Own Lies:
    • The doctors who are scamming Medicaid in The Attending Physician and the Amoral Attorney in There is No Justice seem to honestly believe their claims that they haven't done anything that should expose them to shame or the legal system.
    • In Unexpected Developments, on some level, Walter Wellenmeister honestly believes he's a victimized man who is letting himself be sacrificed to protect his friend, the president, from any scandal. In reality, he's a Corrupt Corporate Executive who is only avoiding real punishment for some major crimes due to his high-level connections.
  • Break the Haughty: Unexpected Developments puts smarmy Corrupt Corporate Executive Walter Wellenstein through a well-deserved ringer. Mere days after he's appointed as ambassador to France, he's disgraced when a plane he's been marketing while knowing that it is flawed crashes in the middle of a Paris air show after Wellenstein forcefully insisted on showing it off there. He's painted as the villain for the media by his successor as CEO and longtime rival and is forced to resign his ambassadorship and admit that he bribed a congressman to try and cover up an earlier plane crash where the defective plane killed three schoolchildren. He then finds himself being completely shut out by the political establishment he hobnobs with, becomes a murder suspect, and is nearly murdered himself under terrifying circumstances that make him collapse in a faint after the police rescue him. He's last mentioned as begging his rival for a job, which is unlikely to be successful. By the end of the book, he's a self-pitying wreck, and no one is the least bit sorry for him.
  • Corrupt Politician:
    • In Epitaph for a Lobbyist, a leaked memo from lobbyist Shirley Knapp reveals that she paid one of three congressmen a $50,000 bribe to vote against a bill regulating big business. Ben tries to figure out which of the three took the bribe (and probably killed Shirley to cover his tracks). It ultimately turns out that two of them took bribes (the $50,000 and several expensive vacations respectively).
    • In Unexpected Developments, Congressman Mike Atamian has spent his entire career in the pocket of a corrupt defense contractor and bribes a member of a court-martial board to cover up the flaws of a new fighter jet.
    Congressman Michael Atamian (D., Calif), during his five terms in Congress, had sponsored no legislation, skipped most committee work, and missed too many roll calls. All his efforts were devoted to taking care of the interests of Dorland Aircraft.
  • Crusading Lawyer: The Attending Physician features two such lawyers.
    • Murder victim Sidney Karras initially seems like an Ambulance Chaser out to cash in on a Medicaid scandal using stolen documents to make his case. However,r it turns out that Karras had nothing to do with the theft and has dedicated his decades-long career to social justice issues and helping low-income clients who can't pay him much. The lawsuit which costs him his life is driven by a desire to help a young mother whose husband has multiple sclerosis.
    • Michael Isham is from a bigger, more successful firm, but he is motivated by a genuine desire to help his client (a blind man on welfare) get his life in order, and he also ends up representing Karras's client after his death.
    Isham: Real satisfaction comes from the big jobs—like devoting your life to outlawing child labor—or from the little jobs that make a big difference to one human being, that are damn near life transforming.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: Unexpected Developments involves a member of a military board of inquiry taking a bribe to blame a pilot for a plane crash and protect the manufacturers of the defective vehicle from losing their investment. When an investigation threatens to expose the corruption, the bribe-taker kills another member of the board who voted against the pilot, staging a suicide to cast suspicion on him. He stages the scene to look like a suicide by putting a glass of bourbon, a picture of a pretty woman the killer assumed to be his sweetheart, and part of the bribe money next to the body. His plan works for the first half of the novel, then the dead man's sister (the owner of the house he was killed in) reveals that the bourbon was hers and her brother only drank vodka. Additionally, the picture of the beautiful woman who the killer assumed was his victim's sweetheart was really a picture of his niece's drama teacher, who he'd never met, meaning he had no reason to look at the picture before killing himself. Once the suicide is disproven, people stop buying the dead man as a fall guy and the killer's plan unravels.
  • Disappeared Dad:
    • In Epitaph for a Lobbyist, Shirley Knapp's ex-husband hasn't had any role in his kids' lives since Shirley left him while pregnant with their younger child. He mentions that he didn't even know whether the younger child was a boy or a girl until over a decade later. He does seem to regret his absence and has some Papa Wolf moments when he thinks his daughter is in danger.
    • In Unexpected Developments, Lieutenant Colonel Yates is divorced from his wife and is completely uninterested in having anything to do with their children.
  • Government Procedural: The seven novels involve various government scandals (a contentious Supreme Court nomination, congressional hearings into Medicaid fraud, etc.) with a congressman as the Amateur Sleuth.
  • Hauled Before A Senate Subcommittee: Congressman Ben Safford isn't on every committee investigating wrongdoing in the series, but when he is, and he tends to play a more active role in solving the mystery, but he does sit through some interesting proceedings. He sits on a committee uncovering the mechanisms of institutional Medicare fraud in The Attending Physician (at one point, it's being interrupted by a process server telling the testifying doctor that he's being sued), and is chagrined when the scandal reaches his hometown. In Epitaph for a Lobbyist, his committee tries to figure out which congressman a murdered lobbyist bribed to rig a vote.
  • Hypocritical Humor: In The Attending Physician, the local AMA representative rants about how his insurance agent is obsessed with money and profits.
    He infused so much disgust into his final statement that a stranger would have found it hard to believe that he spent one day a week at his broker's, revising his stock portfolio.
  • Karma Houdini: The Greater-Scope Villain of Murder in High Place, who is financing a revolution against a democratic government for selfish reasons, escapes to a non-extradition country. The accomplice who commits the murders is less lucky.
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: The Attending Physician features several corrupt, arrogant, greedy doctors who have been getting away with scamming Medicaid. They spend most of the book on the verge of panic due to documents about their crimes being leaked to people who sue them, putting their medical insurance (and their ability to operate professionally) in jeopardy.
  • Married to the Job: Ben has few interests or hobbies outside of work, reelection, and spending time with his sister and her family. One of the antagonists in The Attending Physician briefly suggests using this to accuse him of being gay, while expressing confidence this would sink Ben's political career.
  • Mood Whiplash: In Unexpected Developments, Ben (and quite a few other characters) go from being impressed and inspired by an airshow to horrified within a few sentences when one of the planes crashes due to a design flaw, killing the pilot.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: In The Attending Physician, eight doctors in Ben's hometown (one of them a Posthumous Character) have spent years billing for nonexistent operations, making patients get unnecessary operations and examinations, and diagnosing unnecessary drug prescriptions. Between them, they've cheated the government out of over a million dollars without a hint of remorse.
    Lieutenant Doyle: Every single one of them is convinced he's got a God-given right to anything he wants and nobody should even ask questions.
  • Never a Self-Made Woman: Elise, the only prominent female member of Congress in the series, first assumed her seat after her husband died of a heart attack and was later re-elected.
  • Nephewism: In Murder Out of Commission, Abby Carr's aunt and uncle primarily raised her after her mother died and her father refused to give up his career as a globetrotting scientist. Surprisingly, Abby and her father still have a close relationship.
  • Never One Murder: Murderers in the series tend to commit additional murders to cover their tracks (although in Epitaph for a Lobbyist, the second and third victims who are targeted by the killer both survive).
  • Non-Protagonist Resolver: In Murder Out of Commission, hotheaded businessman and suspect Sheridan Ireland figures out the crucial link between the victims before anyone else. Then, in a confrontation with the killer, overpowers him when the killer goes for a gun.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: In Unexpected Developments, a member of a court-martial board that adjudicated the aftermath of a plane crash is found dead with an envelope with a Saudi embassy postmark (the dead pilot is a Saudi trainee) and a lot of money inside. Safford has a brief, cryptic conversation with the Saudi ambassador about the envelope. Later, it turns out the Saudis never bribed the officer and that their previous conversation was filled with misunderstandings due to the prickly nature of the affair, making both men too careful with their words. The Saudi ambassador thought he was being used as a scapegoat and was agreeing to help the American government save face in exchange for future concessions. Safford thought that the ambassador was admitting to the whole affair and saying that the American government couldn't afford to make a big fuss about it.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Ben's fellow Democratic congressman Tony Martinelli is a staunch proponent of many admirable principles and positions. However, his reaction to the revelations about Supreme Court nominee Coleman Ives being a serial adulterer leaves something to be desired, when he says that at least it proves Ives isn't gay.
    Tony: [W]ho wants a f*ggot on the Court?
  • Poor Communication Kills: In Murder, Sunny Side Up, the safety hazard in an egg preservative boils down to this. The preservative was tested at a temperature range of up to three hundred degrees, but the spraying unit heats eggs up to four hundred degrees. Kellog, the sprayer engineer, mentioned this in the report he sent in for the chemical company's final approval, assuming they would make any necessary changes to the chemical. However, he didn't think to emphasize that point, assuming its importance would be self-evident. Instead, his dry technical tone caused the chemist to skim the report, overlook the danger, and ultimately commit two murders to cover up his negligence.
  • Posthumous Character: Elise's late husband is frequently mentioned but died of a heart attack years ago.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: In Murder Out of Commission, the killer's motive is to cover up how he improperly designed a nuclear reactor being installed nationwide. After turning to murder, he then sets out to fix the problem so that the reactors will stop leaking, but his main motive there is likely to cover up his crime rather than to protect the public.
  • Rank Up: in Murder Sunny Side Up, Ben ends up being made the head of a congressional hearing when the original chairman is poisoned.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Congressman Ben Safford and his office mates (Elise Hollenbach, Val Oakes, Lamar Flecker, and Tony Martinelli) are hard-working and fair-minded when it comes to investigations and hearings.
    'When a Hollenbach position collided with a moral principle, it was the position that went.''
    • Whoever gets assigned to investigate the murder in each book is almost invariably willing to comfort powerful people, smart at assessing evidence, and humble enough to listen to skilled Amateur Sleuths.
    • In The Attending Physician, newly minted HEW secretary Joseph Buckley is quite fair-minded and quick-thinking.
    Congressman Tony Martinelli: So far Buckley's ben smart enough to take coaching from a regional director and to dodge a [sleazy proposal] thrown at him by some lobbyist. That's not bad going for a rookie.
    • Prior to Unexpected Developments, court martial board member Major Kruger argued for the admission of crucial evidence that was unjustly excluded due to a majority vote. He's also open with Ben while discussing the proceedings and is willing to acknowledge areas in which his expertise is limited.
    • Unexpected Developments also features Undersecretary of Defense Preston Goodrich, who ultimately proves to be a shrewd man who is willing to risk his career for the sake of justice.
  • Sketchy Successor: In Murder: Sunny Side Up, Congressman Carl Gunderson is a renowned chemistry teacher who was elected to Congress through a grassroots movement and has a history of investigating chemical products. His murder places his committee under the chairmanship of series protagonist Ben Safford, who is elevated to that role due to seniority and knows little about chemistry beyond what has been discussed in the hearings. Some people speculate Gunderson was murdered specifically because Ben is far less likely to spot anything fishy about the ova-cote preservative. That theory is correct, although Ben eventually pieces together the expert witnesses' testimony and figures out the preservative's flaw.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: In There is No Justice, the mistress of the second murder victim is revealed to be pregnant with his child at the end of the book.
  • The Stool Pigeon: In The Attending Physician, Dr. Costello is quick to go crawling to the government for an immunity deal once it becomes clear that he's in real danger of losing his medical insurance if he loses an impending malpractice suit. He spends several days smugly spilling his guts about the countless acts of corruption he's involved with. By the time he wraps up, Ben and his colleagues loathe Costello with a passion.
  • Suspicious Spending: While it isn't emphasized until after The Reveal, in Unexpected Developments, the corrupt Lieutenant Colonel Yates spends quite a bit on his playboy lifestyle.
    Captain Ursula Richmond: [H]e spent money like water.
    Congressman Val Oakes: He was a womanizer. He was trying to impress you.
    Captain Ursula Richmond: Then he should have chosen a girl friend who didn't know to the penny how much a lieutenant colonel makes.
  • Unmanly Secret: In Murder Out of Commission, adventurous Congressman Tony Martinelli is visibly embarrassed when his wife tells his friends that Tony gardens for fun.