Sunday, June 19, 2011

ALPHABET HICKS - Rex Stout

I may be the only mystery reader in the world who hasn't fallen in love with Nero Wolfe.  I've read only three Wolfe books and they didn't do much for me.  I read them in my teens, however, when I was a devoted follower of the fair play British puzzle detective novel.  The only American writers I liked were those whose books were puzzle first, character second.  My friends had to keep pestering me to read Rex Stout.  I did and I just didn't like them.  I stayed away from them for 30 years.

Now I'm dipping into the Stout waters again, slowly and cautiously, like a beginning swimmer afraid that the shallow end of the pool will suddenly drop off into the dangerous deep end and I'll be lost with nothing beneath my feet.  For my re-entry experimental reading I decided to read all the non-series mystery novels by Stout this summer.  And I was surprised that in Alphabet Hicks I found the kind of quirky characters and puzzling plot that I craved when I was so much younger.

Alfred Hicks earns his nickname from his odd business cards. They are printed with his name and only a string of seemingly nonsensical letters forcing everyone he hands a card to ask, "And what's that stand for?"  M.S.O.T.P.B.O.M. = Melancholy Spectator of the Psychic Bellyache of Mankind.  C.F.M.O.B. is translated as Candidate for Mayor of Babylon.  Not Babylon, Long Island.  The Old Testament Babylon.  Hicks is quite the sarcastic cut-up.  He's also a disbarred lawyer who mostly ekes out a living as a taxi driver when he isn't trying to be a private detective.  It's in his role as cabbie that he is recognized by one of his fares, Judith Dundee, who hires him on the spot.

Her husband Dick Dundee, president of a plastics manufacturing company, suspects her of turning traitor and selling corporate secrets to his rival. Mrs. Dundee tells Hicks her paranoid husband has turned against her and is threatening to end their marriage.  At the core of his paranoia is evidence that proves she has been in cahoots with Jimmy Vail, the owner of the competitor plastics firm. Her price for hiring Hicks is too much to resist. He takes on her case and is soon embroiled in a messy murder and a corporate spying plot.

1st US edition: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941
The paperback reissue title of the book (and all subsequent editions of the book, in fact) is The Sound of Murder. It's a perfect title.  Better than the original even, for the crux of the plot is the search for a missing record used in an early eavesdropping machine called a sonotel in the book but it seems no more different than an early phonograph recording device with a hidden microphone to record and a record player for play back. The record contains the evidence the husband claims is incriminating his wife as an industrial spy. Like the illustration on the Dell Mapback cover the record becomes a metaphorical tornado spinning out of control and threatening to destroy the lives of all involved.  The record contains a conversation between a woman and Jimmy Vail.  But just who is the woman? Is it Judith Dundee as her husband claims it is? Or is it the voice of Martha Cooper? She is the murder victim found on the grounds of R.I. Dundee & Co. the very day Hicks trails her from a train station to the plastics firm.  Both have amazingly similar voices.  What Stout does with this highly original idea of two sound-alike characters and the mileage he gets out of that plot gimmick is impressively done. He keeps the story moving adding multiple plot complications that make for a twister of a story.

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BLOG LONGEVITY NOTE:  This marks the 100th post for this blog which is approaching its half year anniversary.  I'm glad it happened to be a post on a book from the Golden Age of detective fiction since that was supposed to be my focus when I started this writing adventure back in late January of this year.  But all in all, I like how this blog has morphed into something all-encompassing in crime fiction (and other related genre fiction). It's almost as if it's trying on different personas just like a child growing up.  Here's to another 100 before December 31!

15 comments:

  1. I have THE MOUNTAIN CAT MURDERS and THE SOUND OF MURDER, both featuring Hicks, but I have not read them or this one. Neither of mine is a Map Back. I'm encouraged that you enjoyed this one. I just finished a Wolfe novel, WHERE THERE'S A WILL and liked it.

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  2. Congrats on reaching your 100th blog post, John! Here's too many more!

    I read this book not long before opening my blog and it's the best non-series detective story I read by him so far – and ranks along side Some Buried Caesar and Too Many Cooks as one of his best detective stories overall.

    I also loved the little clues he planted that show that Hicks inhabits the same universe as Wolfe, Archie and Fox (Rusterman's, The Gazette, The Flamingo, etc). It's such a pity none of them ever met face to face. Ah, just imagine what a Wolfe/Fox rivalry would've been like!

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  3. I never bothered this one because, I suppose, of the unprepossessing title. Will have to look up.

    I've always found Nero Wolfe unlikable (Dr. Priestley is Suzy Sunshine compared to Nero). The books would be intolerable without Archie's narration, I think.

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  4. Yes, congratulations on 100 and here's (clink) to many hundreds more.

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  5. Thanks, guys. And TomCat, you're right about those hints. I wanted to mention that Hicks wears yellow pajamas just like Wolfe. I loved that private joke.

    Rick - Mountain Cat Murders is next on my non-series Stout reading list. Review will appear next week. Hicks is not in that book that I know of. It's not noted as one in my copy of Hubin.

    But THREE ACT TRAGEDY just started on Mystery! Must sign off now.

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  6. Happy 100th! I have yet to read any of the Alphabet Hicks books--although I'm pretty sure I have one around here somewhere (she says as she peers at the stacks of books all over the room). You make me want to ransack the stacks and forget about the list I have lined up for my other challenges.

    It's funny, I'm a British fair play girl myself, but I fell in love with the Wolfe books on the first read...and, darn it, that was long enough ago that my mid-life, post-anesthesiaed brain can't tell you which one it was. Oh the joys of aging and surgery recovery.

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  7. Happy centennial!!!

    Personally, I love the Wolfe/Archie interplay most about Stout's Nero Wolfe novels. The dialogue is just plenty of fun, and the other characters are usually good as well.

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  8. Buon centenario (as we say back home) - I'm a big fan of Stout, especially for their humour and the mixture of hard and soft boiled sensibilities, but have never strayed away from his Wolfe series so far but I think you've tempted me!

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  9. Glad you joined the blogging world. You've introduced me to some new writers and great books. On the other hand, I've added some books to the NTBR pile. Keep those reviews coming.

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  10. I love Archie and Archie needs Nero (yin and yang thing), so I have to take Nero as well.

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  11. Congratulations. 100th post of an extremely interesting blog. Keep the posts coming.

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  12. Great post, John. You know how much I ADORE Nero Wolfe - in fact I am still in my Wolfe Binge phase, re-reading the short stories during meals.

    I'd never heard of ALPHABET HICKS except peripherally. I'd never heard of anyone reading it and writing about it. The book intrigues me.
    I will have to see about reading it. For sure.

    Thanks, kiddo!

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  13. Oh, meant to say: Congrats on your 100th post!!

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  14. I loved Stout when I was in my twenties. But I must say I almost am afraid to revisit him now for fear I will see the whodunnit driven plots as dull and predictable.

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