Can it really be 30 years since Emma Lathen arrived on the mystery scene with Banking on Death (1961)? Hard to believe — since nobody, before or since, has so consistently put the traditional whodunit in such crisp, up-to-date contexts, from the civil rights movement (Death Shall Overcome, 1966) to the take-out chicken industry (Murder to Go, 1969) to cutthroat airline mergers (Something in the Air, 1988). For aficionados of business shenanigans, above all, the Lathen series has stood as a model of wry, modern murder-comedy. And from the beginning there has been added bite in the fact that the source of all this hard-headed Wall Street satire is a woman. Or, more precisely, two women: ”Emma Lathen” is the pseudonym for economist Mary Jane Latsis and lawyer Martha Henissart (LATsis and HENissart), who met in the 1950s.

Thirty years or not, Lathen’s latest puzzler is no less headline-savvy than its predecessors. In East Is East, Carl Kruger — an Iacocca-like national hero who rescued Lackawanna Electric from bankruptcy — crosses the Pacific to attempt a gutsy trade coup. The plan? Lackawanna will sell its robotics technology to a Japanese conglomerate, Yonezawa Trading. In return, Yonezawa will distribute Lackawanna’s products, creating U.S. competition for Japanese electro-titans. But first the deal must be approved by Japan’s all-powerful Ministry of International Trade and Investment (MITI). So a slew of interested parties has gathered in Tokyo for the MITI hearings — including that fatherly Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher (Lathen’s regular sleuth), who represents Lackawanna’s many creditors.

As usual with Lathen, the opening chapters here can be somewhat dense going. But once the large, combative cast has been introduced, the momentum picks up considerably — especially when a lowly, obtrusive MITI clerk is found murdered, apparently because he had uncovered evidence of grand-scale bribery. Which U.S. or Japanese faction slipped $1 million to the MITI chief to influence his decision? And is that the whole story? Thatcher will quietly close in on a brilliant, Christiesque solution.

True, Lathen’s no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts approach isn’t for everyone. Look elsewhere for cozy charm, sentiment, or melodrama. And longtime fans will probably tell you (not wrongly) that this is far from Thatcher’s finest hour. Still, with droll insights on everything from the Americanization of Japanese executives to the dangers of business by fax, Lathen remains the smart money’s choice for clever Wall Street entertainment. B+

East Is East
  • Movie
  • 96 minutes