A passionate accountant meets a sticky end, strangled with the electric cord of his own adding machine. Clarence Fortinbras was indeed passionate about accounting - he was, among other things, the author of a standard textbook for accountants, Fortinbras on Accounts Receivable. And it appeared that something was radically wrong with the finances at the National Calculating Company, and that Fortinbras was just the man to uncover the problem and, if one existed, the perpetrator. Which may explain why Fortinbras met such an unfortunate end. It would be up to a banker, John Putnam Thatcher, Senior Vice President of the Sloan Guaranty Trust, to uncover a calculating killer. It happens in Accounting for Murder, by Emma Lathen, and it's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
Between 1961 and 1997, Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart, writing as “Emma Lathen,” turned out two dozen very good traditional puzzle-plot mysteries starring a banker as their principal detective character. John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice president and the head of the Trusts department at the Sloan Guaranty Trust, the third largest bank in the world, finds himself confronting difficult situations on behalf of the bank and its many interests. Each of the books focuses on a different industry; Accounting for Murder, first published in 1964, turns a spotlight on accounting - as it used to be in the days before desktop computers changed the way business was conducted. Computers were still pretty rare and, as a result, fair game for speculation about ways to cheat the machines. For it would appear that something odd is going on at National Calculating – and a group of dissident stockholders want action. Enter Clarence Fortinbras, determined to get to the bottom of any cheating going on in National Calculating’s books. Among other things, he wants to know why two divisions at National Calculating produce virtually the same product for different buyers – and one division makes money while the other loses money. Is somebody cooking the books? Fortinbras is determined to find out – and that determination will cost him his life. And while other accountants – including a most experienced police department accountant – try to figure out what Fortinbras may have discovered, it is John Putnam Thatcher (whose bank, unhappily, owns a very large share in National Calculating through convertible bonds) who must eventually figure out the secret that will explain murder.
Accounting for Murder is nicely leavened with quiet humor – and there’s also some pleasure to be had by looking back from our perch in the 21st century to a time when computers were a lot bigger and less understood than they are today, a time when people still used carbon paper, and an accountant’s personal adding machine could be used in a murder. I urge you to take this opportunity to meet John Putnam Thatcher and his colleagues. He’s well worth knowing.