The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout

The League of Frightened Men
Rex Stout, 1935, 230p.
This is the second Nero Wolfe mystery, and one of the better ones. This novel and Fer-de-Lance1 (the first) were the two selected from Stout's canon for inclusion on the Haycraft Queen Cornerstone2 list of influential crime fiction. In my readings so far, these are indeed the two most worthy.

The story is enjoyable and somewhat unusual. A group of college associates are being threatened by one of their own, with good reason to believe it is the author and playwright that was accidentally crippled in one of their college pranks. Two men are dead, with the strong implication from harassing letters that it was murder. Now another man is missing, a man who had come to Wolfe for help and been turned away. Wolfe wants to cajole the whole group to sign on (and pay up) to have the case solved. As always, Wolfe is staying put, his investigations take the form of reading the potential culprit's books and plays. The street-level action is left to narrator and sideman Goodwin and a long standing group of contract footmen.

Like many of the Wolfe stories, the business angle is as much a part of the intrigue as the crimes. In fact, in this story, Wolfe's chess game with his clients easily takes up as many words as the putative crimes under investigation. Or perhaps I should say, a key dimension of the mystery here is how Wolfe plans to lure customers and execute his contracts.

The artful turn of phrase that I enjoyed so much in Fer-de-Lance is less present here, though not gone. Stout came to these two novels after a series of failures at writing literary fiction, and you can tell. At times playful with sentence and imagery, the narrative feels much more like Archie's voice than the later works I have read. Later works, like The Doorbell Rang seem to have narrative language that melts away from the reader and lets the action sit in the foreground largely unadorned (though the dialogue remains fairly sharp and contorted). Knowing little about Stout's progress, I am inclined to believe that his sense of his audience (boys and young men) evolved, and he dialed up the action and dialed down the language play. This certainly makes the later works more accessible. While he never strips matters to the dial-tone dumb of a Hardy Boys novel, it has dampened my favourite dimension of his work.

As with many of the Wolfe books, don't try to figure out the motivations of any of the secondary characters. The secondary characters are scenery, and trying to understand them as people is like wanting backstory for the fire escape. Actually, given some of Stout's notes included in this series's printing, I think that the fire escape is more likely to have backstory than most of the characters.


  1. I previously reviewed Fer-de-Lance
  2. The Haycraft Queen Cornerstone is a list of influential crime fiction written before 1952 (when the list was last amended).

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Way behind on my reading list - read this a month and a half ago. Sometimes extra time is constructive, I suppose. I find the style and details creep away and I am left mulling the settings and ideas.

Brighton Rock
Graham Green, 1938, 284p.
I picked this classic Catholic murder thriller as my entrée to Greene1, and it seems an excellent choice. Set in the seaside diversions of Brighton, the novel opens with the murder of a London newspaperman "Fred" by young Pinkie and his recently-inherited second-tier gang. Fred's death is ruled natural, but Ida Arnold is convinced otherwise. Pinkie must lock down aging gang member Spicer and young witness Rose before Ida can pry them lose.

Ida Arnold is a secular do-gooder, compelled to act by her sense of justice. Catholics Pinkie and Rose scoff; they live in a landscape of good and evil, not of right and wrong. Human justice for them is just a mechanism by which man inflicts pain on man in the guise of a god. Pinkie embraces his fate in hell, and Rose seems to beg for her corruption. Belief, setting and culture tangle in a layered Brighton, where like hard candy, everything can only ever be whatever it is in the centre.

Greene's writing is rich without being florid, and his characters real but pleasantly opaque. I am a sucker for 20th century English settings, and the pier here seems as compelling a character as Rose.

As far as novels with Christian themes, I feel at home in Catholic novels2. They may be informed by an ideology that is largely inaccessible to me, but at least they have the good sense not to be uplifting.


  1. My wife's uncle is a big fan of Greene, and he graciously marked the books he recommended in the "also by" of this book for me. Unfortunately, it was a library copy, which means that I no longer have the list (and also really shouldn't have marked the library copy). However, Our Man in Havana was definitely there, so I have added that to my TBR.
  2. I reviewed Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away some time ago as a guess reviewer on my wife's book blog. The Violent is another densely Catholic novel with many overlapping themes, despite the many differences between these two authors. Reading both is like attempting a Venn diagram of the Catholic novel.