Thursday, 6 June 2013

When in Greece by Emma Lathen

published 1969   chapter 16  The Trojan Women






At the mouth of the alley, they spotted their prey and paused, partly for breath and partly for sheer astonishment.

Gone were there ladylike figures who bloomed amidst linear furniture and abstract paintings. There was no sign of the svelte elegant Dr Jenkins or the grandmotherly, untidy Dr Murphy. Instead, two dishevelled street urchins swarmed over a disreputable pick-up truck.

With legs straddled Lorna Jenkins stood atop the load in the back of the truck, silhouetted against the sky. Today her thin rakish form had an air of piratical practicality. Her faded blue jeans were tucked into old lace-up hunting boots. As she heaved sacks of plaster about, shirt tails flapped in the breeze.

On ground level Kate Murphy was more circular than ever in chinos and a pair of gaiters reminiscent of the First World War. Effortlessly she tossed picks and spades over the tailboard. Her black hair was thrust back by the gaudy scarf she had wrapped around her forehead as a sweatband. It was she who spotted the visitors and halloed a welcome.



observations: These are two classical archaeologists working in Greece, who are going to help series hero John Putnam Thatcher of the Sloan Guaranty Trust. There has been a military coup (an actual historical event in 1967) and that leads to some farrago involving a missing bank employee, microfilm (oh the nostalgia!) hidden in a visiting card, the arrival of a baby, an earthquake – all kinds.

This is for old times’ sake: the books are very much of their time, and you can get a bit bogged down in financial details (their selling point) but they were always fun to read, with sly jokes and clever characterisation.

Choice of characters’ names is an underestimated skill, but one Lathen excelled at – nice Mr Thatcher suffers from now being associated with the British Prime Minister of that name, but other characters – Walter Bowman, Everett Gabler, Rose Theresa Corsa – all have wonderful, perfect names.

Emma Lathen (pseudonym for two women, both economists, writing together) published many detective stories between 1961 and 1997, when one of the duo died. You can find out more about them and their name at Wikipedia. In the 1977 festschrift Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime they wrote one of the most perceptive, witty and enjoyable entries.

The UK Penguin Crime editions in the 1970s had very striking and pleasing covers.




The picture is from the Helen Richey archive at the San Diego Air and Space Museum – Richey was an aviation pioneer who flew with Amelia Earhart (in the news this week as her lost plane may have been discovered.)

Murphy and Jenkins would be terribly interested in all our recent entries on classical matters.

3 comments:

  1. Now you have featured one of my favorite authors (or pair of authors) ever. I have read every John Thatcher book (except maybe one of the later ones) and some twice and you have reminded me why I love them so much. This excerpt is great.

    Have you read any of her other series using the R. B. Dominic pseudonym? I read a few but did not like them quite as well.

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  2. TracyK - I'd never even heard of the Dominic series - gosh they were busy! I read a whole load of the Thatcher ones over the years, though this was the first one I'd picked up in ages. I'm surprised they were never made into a TV series or film - actually they'd make a good Mad Men-type show...

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  3. Moira - Oh, I'm so glad you featured a John Putnam Thatcher novel! I've always liked them so much. And yes, the financial stuff gets a bit much but I forgive it. The characters are great and I do like the stories.

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