Magazine article The CPA Journal

Emma Lathen on Accounting

Magazine article The CPA Journal

Emma Lathen on Accounting

Article excerpt

Emma Lathen has written over 20 books the first of which was published in 1961. They all feature Sloan Guaranty Trust, the third largest bank in the world, and its senior vice president John Putnam Thatcher, who "did habitually think in terms of white collar crime -- of crooked books and fictitious payees." Many of the novels begin with a brief, somewhat facetious, description of activities on Wall Street. One particularly pertinent to accountants reads -

But even dynamic young portfolio managers. admit that Wall Street knows unscheduled departures from perfection. Fortunately, these can be explained. Scrambled margin accounts, double billing, and visionary profit estimates are invariably caused by computer error; five-weeks delay in stock transfers, disappearing warrants, and garbled information are attributable to human frailty. Only salad oil and certain accounting methods raise the ugly question of original sin.

With introductions like this, it is hardly surprising that accountants and accounting play some part in Emma Lathen's stories. Her terse style results in some appropriate one liners:

"Always check discrepancies. They have no place in good accounts."

"...conspiracies that had left their trail, like the slime of an earthworm, across the prim statements of debits and credits..."

"The secretary's voice rang with every bookkeeper's exasperation over a misplaced entry."

"Displays of sympathy have never balanced a company's books."

The Accounting Profession

Although several characters are CPAs, the only remark made about an accountancy body creates the impression of a somewhat docile and conservative profession: "He was venturing where the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants often feared to tread." Indeed, accountants are not the most loved people and are often treated unkindly: "The Accounting Department would feel slighted. It always did, and, for that matter, it always was."

The status of accountants can be seen by comparing these two passages:

* "Secretaries and accountants at Willard & the morning paper at breakfast, on the subway, anywhere -- so long as it was on their own time."

* "For some reason Stanley seemed to associate their freedom from rail transport with their status in the accounting profession."

Stanley is only too painfully aware of the varying grades within the profession:

Stanley Draper, junior accountant, had held a lonely and unenviable position at National during the four months which had elapsed since his graduation from Cornell. Debarred alike from association with the bookkeepers by virtue of his college degree in accounting and from association with the assistant controllers by his lack of standing as a certified public accountant, he had led an isolated and often uncomfortable existence.

Stanley had one formal colleague who, starting as a bookkeeper, had "raised himself to the level of accountant by 13 years assiduous attendance at night school. Not unnaturally exhausted by this sustained effort, he had decided to rest on his laurels." Not so Stanley who, being young and ambitious, wished to escape from expense accounts and petty cash, "his chief professional concerns," into "the world of mergers and poolings of interest, of write-ups and write-downs, of depreciation and reserves."

The Accountant's Characteristics

Descriptions of accountants' physical appearance are few. One company's president, a "capable, competent accountant ...was middle-aged and colorless." A more comprehensive commentary appears in Accounting For Murder where Clarence Fortinbras, a "well-known and respectable accountant," was "a small, spare, white-haired man of about 70" and "had the red, weather-beaten skin of the outdoorsman; he also boasted an untroubled air of self-assurance and excellent conservative tailoring."

Accounting for Murder provides the most detail about the mentality of accountants:

But, as Stanley knew full well, the first duty of the accountant is to seek and maintain order, and Fortinbras had arranged whole cases of papers in meticulous scale of precedence, with brief notes appended to the top copies. …

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