Ova-Cote is a chemical compound that, when sprayed on eggs, preserves them for months without the need for refrigeration. But does it also turn them poisonous? Since the U.S. government has been shipping coated eggs to developing countries, the question is now before Congressman Carl Gunderson (D., Illinois) and the House Subcommittee on Non-Military Assistance to Unaligned Nations, which he chairs. A hearing ends abruptly when Gunderson collapses and dies, due as it turns out to a poisoned throat lozenge. The second-ranking member of the subcommittee, Benton Safford (D., Ohio), takes over as chair – and eventually solves Gunderson’s murder…
Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Hennissart are best known for their John Putnam Thatcher mysteries, written under the pen name Emma Lathen. Critics seem to consider their shorter Ben Safford series as the poor relation, and it’s true that some of the entries in the series really aren’t all that good. There are three or four that are well worth reading, though, and this, Ben’s first case, is one of them. The cast of suspects is well drawn, and there are a couple of well-concealed clues that will lead you to the culprit if you’re smart enough. The Lathen/Dominic team never go for great masses of clues like some Golden Age authors, but they usually play fair.
Unlike most series detectives, Thatcher and Ben don’t seem to have any particular interest in solving crimes. Instead, they have jobs that put them in a lot of situations that involve one or two murders, and by the end of any book they notice enough clues that they realize who must be guilty. Sometimes they set a trap for the killer, sometimes they just put the facts before the cop in charge of the case and let him take over.
Ben has a supporting cast like Thatcher’s, a secretary and several colleagues – I particularly like Congressman Eugene Valingham Oakes (R., South Dakota), a wily old politician to rival any wily old politician you might find in an Allen Drury or Fletcher Knebel novel. Elsie Hollenbach (R., California) is fun too. The sly humour of the Thatcher novels is here too — the main difference is that the setting is Washington, D.C. instead of Wall Street. And Ben’s sister Janet and brother-in-law Fred, working as his political operatives back in his home town of Newburg, add a pleasant homey touch absent in the Thatcher books.
The late sixties were a time of turmoil in the U.S., but you’d never know it to read this book – barring a couple of passing references, it could as easily have been set a decade earlier. Other books by these authors are all caught up in events of their time (such as When in Greece), so it’s not as if they made a habit of ignoring the news. Maybe they just wanted to write a nice cozy sort of mystery this time.
If you like this one, try Epitaph for a Lobbyist, Murder Out of Commission or There is No Justice. I can guarantee at least that they all have better titles than this one.