2011/12/21

Assorted Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout

There is something about British detective fiction that generally aligns with my sensibilities. Perhaps it is the landscape or the weather that feels familiar yet exotic to my Canadian feet? More likely it comes from the fact that many of the British detectives are thoughtful and somewhat retiring, rather than guns-a-blazin'. Or perhaps that classic British detective fiction is a story of a chaotic lapse, rather than a quest for order in a sea of chaos?

My biases (and some snobbery) aside, there is a lot to like about the Nero Wolfe stories, both in their novelties and in their execution. As mentioned before1, they combine some classic detective fiction staples (the armchair detective, the cerebral genius, the implausible puzzle crimes) with some of the more American hardboiled staples (the hired thugs, the dangerous women, the wise-talking dick). Add to that one of the more unusual Watson-style narrators2, and while the stories aren't always great, they do engage.

A co-worker maintains a little library of Stout in her cube, and over the summer and into the challenging fall, I made my way through five of the novels. I reviewed the first two on their own, but the next three really warrant more of a light survey.

Over My Dead Body
Rex Stout, 1940, 272p.
Over My Dead Body is a fairly early story in the series, and the first to deal with Wolfe's Montenegrin roots3. Two young Montenegrin women approach Wolfe to help one of them deal with an accusation of theft leveled against her. Both work at a fencing studio as instructors. Wolfe is disinterested, but feels forced to act when one of them claims to be Wolfe's long-lost adopted daughter.

Archie is dispatched to investigate, and in short order there is a murder and international intrigue (Nazis, spies and Slavic princesses). As with many of these stories, Wolfe seems to be privy to a great number of ideas about the case right from the start. The reader is left in the same boat as poor Archie, to flail around getting ducks lined up for Wolfe's dramatic conclusion. And dramatic it is, though not altogether surprising.

The twists and contrivances pile up a bit thickly here, and all too few of the characters are more than conductors for clues and red-herrings. Scattered through the work are ripe lines, though ripe in both senses: Some cute and charming observations, some that emit an odour that make the eyes water.

The Doorbell Rang
Rex Stout, 1965, 192p.
The Doorbell Rang is my least favourite Wolfe Mystery so far. We zip forward a full quarter century from the previous book, and Wolfe is still tending orchids in his Manhattan brownstone. This is a later and unusually politically motivated novel. Wolfe takes on the (deserving, mind you) target of the malign FBI of the 1960s. As easy as it is to hate that enemy, the story is a fairly unbelievable and adolescent revenge fantasy. There is naturally something satisfying about seeing Wolfe bullying a bully, and there is a sort of boisterous paranoia that lofts the first half of the book along.

Both Wolfe and his client invite the FBI to their table, then need to find a way to flush them back away. While there is little question that the FBI of that era viciously overstepped and needed more transparency and oversight, the in-novel action is largely self-interested. Featuring the FBI in the novel shone a light on the issue, and it referenced a more concrete book for readers to investigate more on their own — but that is an accomplishment of Stout's, not Wolfe's4. While this validates the book as a weapon, it gives the reader only an odd sort of external joy.

Meanwhile, within the story, a man is murdered, apparently by the FBI. And herein lies my other problem with this outing: the cold dead body here becomes a chess piece to be manipulated around the board by Wolfe and Cramer and the FBI in their games with each other. Games with grudge, but little greater end. I find it hard to get invested in a match of egos and balls when you throw a corpse into the equation. It is all true to character, perhaps, but too thin on charm and payoff.

Death of a Doxy
Rex Stout, 1966, 192p.
Death of a Doxy is a much more enjoyable later outing for Nero Wolfe. You can tell that one of Stout's challenges was that once you establish your hero as reticent to take cases, you have to work hard to motivate said hero into involvement. In this case, as with the first, the motivation is a matter of personal honour. Rather than a family commitment, here one of Wolfe's long-standing henchmen has fallen under suspicion of murder.

Orrie Cather has been juggling two women, and one has turned up dead. The live woman is a pure and charming stewardess that Cather wants to marry, and that might prove challenging if he goes to prison for killing the other woman. In short order it seems possible that everyone was blackmailing everyone else. While The Doorbell Rang tackled a contemporary topic, this book seems to whip us back to the 30s, where one might use the word "doxy" in the first place. I didn't realize until the end that I was picturing the cars, costumes and even the rhythms of the 1930s in this book written and presumably set 30+ years later.

Here we have another hard-boiled trope come finally to call on the sexless Wolfe: he's met his match, and she's a woman. She is the dead woman's inexplicable best-friend, nightclub performer Julie Jaquette. We are meant to be captivated by this wilful and cynical kindred spirit of Wolfe, but mostly the shock here is that Wolfe sets aside his natural squeamishness towards women and they have some actual conversations. Jaquette can keep Wolfe on his toes mostly by making an awful lot of sharp turns and pithy one-liners, but sure enough, the effect is indeed charming. Their banter escalates to a caper, which isn't quite as much fun, but Stout can only find so much room in the plot for a friendship.

The treatment of women here is pretty uneven, but this is a work of its time and place. The women are girls, dames, broads, wives or doxies, and few of them are more than that. Jaquette is more, but only in so far as Stout concedes to give her some of the choicer dialogue, and leaves her some uncategorized mysteries that the other women (and frankly, most of the men) aren't afforded. Her wiles are more than just standard issue feminine wiles, and she doesn't feel like furniture in her scenes with Wolfe and Archie.

I found the climactic act of deduction is a too-pat "misjudgment of hubris", but as usual it is made up for with a lot of movement and drama. Of the three works, it was the tightest and most satisfying.

With another couple dozen titles in this series waiting patiently for me on a co-worker's shelf, I am sure I will return to Wolfe's brownstone. But having sampled his work thoroughly, I think I will wait until the cottage is aired out and there is some sun on the back porch again.

Notes:

  1. Previously, I reviewed the first and second novels in the Nero Wolfe series: Fer-de-Lance and The League of Frightened Men respectively.
  2. My spouse's review of Fer-de-Lance has a much better discussion of Archie Goodwin, the quasi-Watson of this series.
  3. Confusingly, Wolfe claims to be American born in this novel, rather than born in Montenegro. It makes little sense in the context of the story, and conflicts with all later books. Stout was pressured to change Wolfe's birthplace by the publisher.
  4. Which leads actually to the most interesting aspect of this novel: Stout himself drew the attention of the FBI, and was placed under investigation by them.

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