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Literature / John Putnam Thatcher

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A long running mystery series about an investment banker/amateur detective, written by Emma Lathen (a pseudonym for co-authors Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Hennisart).

The novels in the series are:

  • Banking on Death (1961)
  • A Place for Murder (1963)
  • Accounting for Murder (1964)
  • Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round (1966)
  • Death Shall Overcome (1966)
  • Murder Against the Grain (1967)
  • A Stitch in Time (1968)
  • Come to Dust (1968)
  • When in Greece (1969)
  • Murder to Go (1969)
  • Pick Up Sticks (1970)
  • Ashes to Ashes (1971)
  • The Longer the Thread (1971)
  • Murder Without Icing (1972)
  • Sweet and Low (1974)
  • By Hook or by Crook (1975)
  • Double, Double, Oil and Trouble (1978)
  • Going for the Gold (1981)
  • Green Grow the Dollars (1982)
  • Something in the Air (1988)
  • East is East (1991)
  • Right on the Money (1993)
  • Brewing Up a Storm (1996)
  • A Shark Out of Water (1997)

The series provides examples of:

  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: In Come to Dust The killer steals a $50,000 bond that was entrusted to him by a colleague right before he disappeared. He mistakenly believes that his missing colleague is an embezzler, which emboldens him to pocket the bond on a whim. When it turns out that his colleague isn't an embezzler, he tries to return the bond, only to find the building locked down due to police presence. He later goes on to murder a seventeen-year-old boy to cover his tracks.
    'Thatcher: Ralph was not born to be a criminal. He was an accidental one if there ever was one.
  • Absence of Evidence: During the audit in Something in the Air, it's discovered that the murder victim had an established track record of paying cash for things but never cashed a check to get that cash. (The novel was written before ATMs became common.) The police and Sloan take a closer look at his finances, and learn the murder victim was a blackmailer.
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  • Always Murder: Whatever irregularities the business of the book has, it produces a corpse at some point.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Thatcher must solve the mystery before the Sloan can move on.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Several books (such as Murder Makes the Wheels Go Round, A Stitch in Time, Going for the Gold, The Longer the Thread, and Green Grow the Dollars) have Thatcher and his allies stop the murderer from claiming another victim by a matter of seconds.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Double, Double, Oil and Trouble opens with Thatcher and Charlie Trinkam delivering four briefcases full of unmarked small-denomination bills for a ransom payout. Even in 1978 there were better ways to transfer $1.5 million from New York to a Swiss bank, but the terrorist group behind the kidnapping wanted publicity as much as the cash.
  • Car Fu: The second murder in East is East is done by running over the victim with an older Harley-Davidson motorcycle. This probably wouldn't have worked if the victim had had time/room to dodge, but since he was in a narrow alley at the time ....
  • Career-Ending Injury: In Right on the Money, Doug Ecker was raised as the heir to his father's business for twenty-five years before two heart attacks forced him to take early retirement.
  • Clashing Cousins: The first book involves a trust an industrialist set up for his four grandchildren. Three of the cousins squabble over how to run the family business and about their respective lifestyles, but do love each other. The fourth cousin has been estranged from the others for decades and is murdered by one of them in a fit of rage for having a Lack of Empathy about how his rival company was threatening to bankrupt his cousins' business.
  • Comic-Book Time: Thatcher is "a youthful sixty" in all books, from 1961 to 1997.
  • Comically Small Bribe: In-universe examples in both Murder To Go and Green Grow The Dollars. In both novels, the cops can't believe that a character accepted such a small payout for an illegal act. (The payers in both novels were trying to hit a balance between "not enough to get the job done" and "so much they'll know something's up". The payees eventually figure out Something's Up and find themselves murdered.)
  • Commonality Connection: In Murder Without Icing, Thatcher (and later one of his banking subordinates) befriend a hockey player after discovering that the man is interested in business principles and owns several skating clubs.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Played with in-universe in Brewing Up a Storm. One of the suspects says he has an alibi, but refuses to tell the cops what it is. He went out of town to get an HIV test, after learning a woman he'd dated had turned up positive. At the end of the novel, another character points out that the woman in question had been blabbing the news all over town for months to get sympathy.
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: In A Place for Murder, Thatcher is dragooned by Bradford Withers into trying to settle an argument over the valuation of a country estate so the owners' divorce can go through. In a variant, the fight is between the two women involved (the current wife and the woman her husband wants to marry), with the husband staying out of the mess. Becomes the murder motive once the second woman realizes neither her intended spouse nor First Wife have the slightest clue how valuable the dog-breeding kennel based at that estate is. The kennel operator was stealing all the profits.
  • Dry Crusader: Madeline Underwood from Brewing Up a Storm (until she gets killed).
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Once per novel.
  • Exact Words: Thatcher's subordinate Everett Gabler relishes using exact words during an investigation. In Pick up Sticks, he purchases a shoddy piece of real estate to get evidence in an investigation rather than because he wants to live there.
    ''Everett had his small conceits. One was a fancy for literal truth. "I am sure," he said, "that this transaction is going to afford me considerable satisfaction."
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: The reader might not have all the solid evidence until after the fact, but does have all the clues that tipped Thatcher off.
  • Finale Title Drop: In By Hook or by Crook.
  • Forensic Accounting: It's very common for a business connected to the current murder to get an impromptu audit from the Sloan.
  • For Want of a Nail:
    • Murder Against the Grain features a plot to embezzle nearly a million dollars from the Sloan. The plan unexpectedly leads to murder (which plays a big role in Thatcher solving the mystery) when one of the parties involved in the business deal sends his chauffeur to deliver a check while he's on hand rather than wait for a messenger. The chauffeur served in The Korean War with the man the thief is impersonating, causing him to recognize the deception and follow the thief home.
    • In Double, Double, Oil and Trouble, a fake kidnapping with a $1.5 million ransom is thoroughly and fatally derailed when the phony victim gets into a car accident. He gets medical treatment under a fake name, but it takes him three weeks to show up, saying he was released, instead of two days. This gains more media attention than anticipated and leaves lots of gaps in his story. Additionally, he's left with the terrifying knowledge a simple medical examination (which the authorities want done) could reveal the whole thing by picking up on his recent surgery. These complications cause a co-conspirator to silence the phony victim with a car bomb.
    • In Going for the Gold, a plan to distribute forged Eurocheques during the Winter Olympics is derailed when one of the criminals accidentally uses one of the forged checks to make a purchase instead of one of his actual checks. This attracts the attention of the authorities much earlier than anticipated.
  • Glory Days: In By Hook or by Crook, Barney Olender has a good job and is an Honorary Uncle to his boss's kids, but he clearly misses the lost musical career of his youth.
    Barney: Those were the days. Every one of us was going to have the biggest band the country had ever seen, with full houses, and people coming for miles ... But the war came and closed the roadhouses. That's why I was out of work when Paul needed someone. So I went into Oriental rugs, and I made a bundle. But you can't ever say that it's been the same for me as it was for Paul.
  • Good Stepmother: In "By Hook or by Crook,'' Harriet Parajian helped her husband seek for the missing children from his first marriage and was very kind and welcoming to them afterward. Decades later, she's still on good terms with all three kids and can talk sense into them when things are going badly. Although it turns out her husband is actually their uncle and not their father.
  • Insanity Defense: At one point in Death Shall Overcome, a character is arrested for trying to shoot up a NAACP fundraiser. His Trophy Wife and his estranged son promptly come up with the idea that he should plead insanity to "beat the rap". Being a loudmouth racist does not qualify, but since neither of them was a lawyer it's an understandable mistake ... and really, this was as much to grab control of the family money as anything else. The character's actual lawyer was pushing for a Plea Bargain instead. note 
  • Karma Houdini:
    • In Right on the Money, the murderer (who has also robbed people who trust him) escapes to Europe as the police close in on him.
    • In Come to Dust, one character is suspected of being a hit-and-run driver who recklessly kills two teenagers. It turns out that he's innocent, but it's never confirmed whether the real hit-and-run driver is ever caught.
  • The Meddling Kids Are Useless: Downplayed in Murder to Go. Thatcher does expose the killer, but the ending reveals that the police would have almost certainly closed the case without his help. They secretly zeroed in on the culprit several chapters before Thatcher due to a combination of opportunity and an I Never Said It Was Poison slip-up.
  • Medication Tampering: The second murder in Murder Without Icing was performed by substituting cyanide tablets for the victim's cold medicine.
  • Mouth of Sauron:
    • In the Back Story of By Hook or by Crook, Barney Olender was a benevolent version of this, buying rugs and handling business transactions for Paul Parajian while Paul worked a second job and then served in World War II. Paul hired Barney, a man with no contacts or experience in the rug trade, because he was using an assumed identity and couldn't risk being identified by any of the many rug merchants who knew the real Paul.
    • Murder Without Icing features another relatively mundane example. Victor Jowdy is a lawyer representing several unseen creditors of sports team co-owner Winthrop Holland. Jowdy's employers have tasked him with determining whether or not the sports team will make a good investment in place of Holland's debt. Because Jowdy is a representative and not an actual creditor, he avoids being murdered like another man Holland owes money to. Killing Jowdy would merely cause his employers to send another agent.
  • Murder by Mistake: In Death Shall Overcome, the murderer thought he was poisoning his intended victim's Bloody Mary. The poison actually got into a glass of tomato juice ordered by another character, who had recently been diagnosed with an ulcer and quit drinking as a result. note 
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In the climax of The Longer the Thread, Thatcher is horrified and distraught to realize that he's put a good man's life in danger as part of his Bluffing the Murderer scheme and desperately races to save the man's life.
  • Mystery Magnet: The Sloan Guaranty Trust, "the third largest bank in the world", gets involved with a business, and some person involved with it ends up dead.
  • Nice to the Waiter: A variant — Thatcher thinks (in an early novel) that he gets good service because waiters recognize him as a powerful man. It's really because they recognize him as a good tipper.
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: His grandson received a puzzle box for Christmas; the two of them enjoyed spending the day trying to solve it. That was enough of puzzle boxes for Thatcher, but his relatives thought he was obsessed with them.
  • Ostentatious Secret: Miss Corsa's tin box.
  • Persona Non Grata: After the first murder in East is East, the police come across evidence that the victim might have uncovered bribery of a Japanese official. In a failed attempt to brush everything under the rug, a representative of the Japanese government hints to the American embassy that it might be nice if American businessman (and suspect) Carl Kruger leave the country before a formal persona non grata declaration can be made.
  • Real Life Superpowers: Thatcher has intelligence, some political influence, and of course money. In his first novel he gets answers from a reluctant airline employee because he's on the airline's board of directors. note 
  • Rich Idiot With No Day Job: Averted for Thatcher himself. He is a hard worker, and expects the same of his subordinates. Played straight for bank president Bradford Withers, who appears to see his job as a collection of social contacts. On the rare occasion when Withers takes an active role, something goes wrong.
  • Secret Relationship:
    • The culprits in Murder Against the Grain have been romantically involved in secret for about a year and turn to crime to finance a new life for themselves.
    • Going for the Gold. Two of the athletes have been married for a year, but are afraid that the groom's rich parents won't approve of the bride and hope that this will change if she acquits herself well in the Winter Olympics.
    • The culprits in East is East are married, but keep it a secret so no one will think of them as co-conspirators. Not even their families know, judging from some I Want Grandkids comments.
  • Serial Spouse: Thatcher's friendly competitor Tom Robichaux is married to a different woman in almost every one of his appearances. Thatcher has difficulty imagining how he's able to pay all of the alimony.
  • Sheep in Sheep's Clothing: In Murder Without Icing, Franklin Moore is introduced as an amiable Honest Corporate Executive. Then, an associate of Moore's reveals that his planned acquisition of a hockey team will involve upheaving all of the players and staff's lives by relocating the franchise to his hometown of Nashville. He's also rumored to be planning to try and push out a co-owner who lives for controlling the team. However, once the deal falls through, Moore is quite mellow about it. After his murder, it transpires that no one outside of the hockey franchise has any reason to hate him, as he was Nice to the Waiter and treated his ex-wife and kids decently. It also turns out that Moore wasn't going to relocate the team or push out his co-owner. The person who claimed that was lying to give everyone else motives for wanting Moore dead.
  • Stealing the Credit: Withers spends a lot of the second book complaining about how the police confiscated the majestic stuffed head of a deer he supposedly shot. The book ends with Ken mentioning this in passing to Mrs. Withers, who angrily reveals that she was the one who shot the stag (after a four-hour hunt) and storms off to confront her husband about that lie.
  • The Summation: The books normally end between the murderer's arrest or suicide and his eventual trial, so this is how Thatcher gets the other characters (and the reader) up to date on just what was going on.
  • Suspicious Spending: Turns up fairly frequently, as one would expect given the frequency of impromptu Forensic Accounting audits.
    • Played with in East is East. At one point, the police inspector investigating the murder asks Thatcher if he was aware that one of his underlings had just gotten a house worth over $1 million. Thatcher tells the inspector that his records are off — the house might have been built recently, but the underling in question bought the land decades previously, well before Maui oceanfront property values skyrocketed.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: In Murder to Go, the seasoning mix for a fast-food chicken dish is poisoned before it goes out to the franchises.
  • Too Dumb to Fool: One victim in East is East qualifies. The founder of Midlands Research has set up an elaborate bookkeeping scheme to hide the money he's stealing from the company. The victim isn't smart enough to read the financial reports, looks only at the bottom line, and asks the founder to explain where the money went.
  • Unluckily Lucky: In the Back Story of "By Hook or by Crook,'' Mark Parajian was horribly injured in a construction accident and took months to recover. However, the hospital records from this accident allowed a Long-Lost Relative to track down Mark and his siblings (who were living miserably in a refugee camp) and give them a prosperous, happy life in America.
  • Unsportsmanlike Gloating: The killer in A Shark Out of Water tried to use the crowds of soccer fans leaving a match to cover his escape. Unfortunately for him, the winning team's fans indulged in enough of this trope to set off a riot. Between the ensuing security cordon at the train station and the killer getting trampled in the riot, the police didn't need to worry about extradition hearings — they just picked him off the pavement and arrested him.
  • What You Are in the Dark: This plays a major role in the Back Story of By Hook or by Crook. Shortly before World War II Haig Parajian assumed the identity of his recently deceased brother Paul to save their business from going under (everything was in Paul's name). The rest of their family was trapped in Europe by the war and then spent years living in extreme poverty in a refugee camp. He could have easily left them for dead. Doing so would have reduced the risk that they'd recognize him as their uncle and not their father. Abandoning them would have also ensured that if his deception, the children, as Paul's legal heirs, would never take away the millions of dollars Haig made from his deception. Instead, Haig tracked them down at no small expense and then spent the next 30 years raising them as a loving father. His youngest nephew Greg (who feels that Haig truly became Paul) returns the favor in the denouement of the novel, destroying evidence of Haig's true identity when he could have used it to sue Haig's wife and (actual) son for their share of the family fortune.
    Greg Parajian: I don't know how I'd face up to murder, but I'm sure of one thing. If I'd been in his shoes, I would have done exactly what Paul did in 1939. And I can only hope to God that I'd have acted the same in 1948.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: When in Greece has the heroes do this. Since they lack the evidence to see the killer convicted of murder in court, they settle for using what evidence they do have to blackmail him into honestly facilitating the business deal that he's been trying to sabotage. As soon as that deal is finalized, the murderer is killed by a friend of the victim who's been helping Thatcher. Thatcher hadn't known she would do that, but he isn't broken up over it.


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