Friday, May 13, 2016

FFB: Three for the Chair - Rex Stout

It's not really right to ever include any of Rex Stout's crime fiction in the Friday's Forgotten Book posts, but here I go anyway. How can anyone call Nero Wolfe forgotten?  I needed to find some books published in 1957 and all I could find were British writers among my shelves. I wanted to devote more time to US writers this year, especially when it came to contributing to Rich Westwood's "Crime of the Century" monthly posts where we write about books published in a specific year. By chance I stumbled across my beat up book club edition of Three for the Chair and was glad to see a copyrighted date of 1957. I'll just gloss over the fact that all three novellas in the book were originally published in magazines in 1955 and 1956 if that's all right with everyone. And now that's all out of the way -- let's move on, class.

I was excited to return to Nero Wolfe after having completely given up on him for over forty years. As luck would have it Three for the Chair seems to be very atypical for Stout, at least from my foggy memories of the novels I've already read. Among the three novellas in this book there are two very well plotted mysteries, one of them including a borderline impossible crime.  I was very surprised and delighted with those stories. As for the third...

My least favorite of the trio was "Immune to Murder".  Because I work in a hospital when I see the word immune I immediately think of viruses, infectious diseases and vaccines. I thought this was going to be a medical mystery of sorts. Here the word immune had nothing to do with medicine or biology. It exemplifies why I wasn't thrilled with Nero Wolfe as a kid since the story is not so much a mystery as it is a tale of the legal issues of diplomatic immunity. It's also about fly fishing and cooking trout.

It's one of two stories in the book where Wolfe and Archie leave Manhattan and his brownstone haven where Wolfe would prefer to be.  The private eye has been invited to a mountain lodge in the Adirondacks to prepare a special gourmet trout dish for a group of visiting diplomats. But just before the dinner is to be served one of the guests is found with his head bashed in and floating face down in the river.  There's not much of a mystery here and the identity of the killer got a sort of "So what?" reaction from me. The real interest in the story is Wolfe's attempt to work around New York laws dealing with the treatment of diplomats and the surprising news that anyone who dares to arrest a diplomat can be charged with a crime himself. There is a very minor mystery of why he chose not to cook any of the fish caught by the man who invited him to prepare the trout in the first place.

Much better is the first story called "Nero Wolfe and the Vanishing Clue" when it was originally published in The American Magazine and given a much simpler title of "A Window for Death" in this triple play book. Bertram Fyfe dies unexpectedly of pneumonia after telling his relatives that he was looking into his father's death. Bert was tried and acquitted for murder several years ago when his father died from negligence. Someone left a bedroom window open during a snowstorm which was a direct cause of his father's death. That the son has now died from pneumonia just as his father did is more than just coincidence. David Fyfe hires Wolfe to look into his brother's suspicious death.  He thinks murder has been done, especially since there's a lot of money that will be inherited and shares in a uranium mining operation in dispute.

The story has a kind of Agatha Christie feel to it with the crime in the past and the family members fighting for their share of the money left to them in the dead man's will.  Similar to "Immune to Murder" there is a recurring theme of a negative clue, so to speak.  Much is made of the two hot water bottles that were found empty in Fyfe's bed the morning he died.  The nurse insists she left them full, but when the body was discovered one of the brothers found that they were both empty and dry. This is the vanishing clue of the magazine published title. This puzzle of the empty hot water bottles is tied to the purchase of some mango flavored ice cream, if you can believe that, making it even more like a Christie story.

Continuing another coincidental pattern in my reading this year the murder method is yet another instance of a bizarre way to kill someone. It tends to crop up in Golden Age novels more often than I would've expected. This instance makes the fifth use of this particular substance as a means to do in someone. Stout's variation is utterly fantastic, hugely risky and probably not very fatal.  But that doesn't detract from an entertainingly told and cleverly thought out criminal problem for Nero Wolfe.

The best of the lot is the final story in the book "Too Many Detectives". It's the second story in which Wolfe is out of his element and the safety of his brownstone on 35th Street. This time he and Archie have traveled to Albany where they and several other private detectives are required to give testimony in a hearing on illegal wiretapping practices among licensed private detective agencies in New York state.  We learn that in 1956 there were 590 licensed PIs in New York, and 423 of them were in New York City.  That's not counting the employees who at the time required no license.

Among the PIs being questioned is Dol Bonner who appeared way back in 1937 in her own novel Hand in Glove and also teamed up with Tecumseh Fox in Bad for Business (1940).  She and her employee Sally Colt keep Archie's wavering eye very busy as he sums them up both as professional colleagues and potential dating material. When Sally shows a taste for alcohol she loses points with him.  I didn't remember that he never drank booze in the novels unless this is something that develops in the later books.

This story is funnier, more involved, has a lively cast of unusual characters, and has the most genuine detective work out of all three stories.  The mystery of a murdered con man who under a variety of aliases hired each of the five detectives to perform some spying and eavesdropping on phone calls is not just confined to who and why he was killed. They must discover his real identity and his motivation for the elaborate trickery employed in the wiretapping jobs. Each of the other detectives seems to have some secret reason for not admitting to being taken in by the con artist. And when the Albany D.A. serves a warrant for Wolfe's arrest the story kicks into high gear.

When I went to The Wolfe Pack website to hunt for illustrations for this post I found a rating sheet for all 39 novellas created by Rex Stout fan Robert Schneider. Interestingly, my assessment of these three stories matched exactly his ratings.  Schneider ranked "Too Many Detectives" the highest with an A-. It comes in at #5 out of all 39 novellas -- in the Top Ten, no less.  "A Window for Death" which he compared to a Ross Macdonald novel (I can see that) earns a B+  and ranks 16/39 while the trout cooking story was ignominiously ranked at #32 getting slapped with a D for "dearth of detection". I'd say D for dull. Unless you like reading about fishing, descriptions of Archie's salivating over the two attractive women, and some arcane tidbits about New York State law the story is pretty lousy as a mystery.

Should you come across a copy -- and there hundreds of copies out there --of this book I'd very much recommend the other two novellas. I had such a fun time with Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin and the rest of the gang this time around that I'll be digging up some more Rex Stout in this book museum of a home.  I'm very much interested in these novellas now as they seem to be quite varied and show Stout's unusual experimenting with plotting and detective fiction gimmickry.

14 comments:

  1. Thanks, John, for providing the rating link. I used to read the novellas, then went through a brief spurt of enjoying the novels, and then, like you, I dropped Rex Stout for decades. You put into words the good and the not-so-good of Nero Wolfe very well, and now I have a chance to seek out the best of the "mini-Wolfes!"

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    1. The rating sheet will be my guide since I seem to have exactly the same standards for detective fiction as Mr. Schneider. I'm glad to have it as a tool. Now I can completely avoid the D and F rated(!) novellas.

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  2. I understand you're preferences, but in my book, compared to a lot of mystery fiction out there, a D rated (I don't accept that there are F rated Wolfe stories) Wolfe is preferable to a lot of it.

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    1. I still can't wrap my head around why Rex Stout has been practically canonized by his real devotees. But I have so many perceptual issues and my way of viewing the world is so radically different than a "normally wired" person I'll probably never be able to understand fully the mystique of Archie and Nero Wolfe.

      I can appreciate Stout a lot more now that I'm adult. As a teen these were probably way too sophisticated for me. Wolfe's patronizing way of speaking to everyone, Archie's work relationship, the way private detectives were presented as businessmen, Archie's views on women -- all that was lost on me. When I first read Nero Wolfe (only five books, BTW) ages ago in my high school days I wanted puzzles in my mystery novels. Christie and Queen and Van Dine were a lot more fun to read. That's why I gave up on Stout. It was quite eye opening to read these now that I'm much older, somewhat wiser, slightly less shallow, and more cognizant of how I read books and what I can get out of them.

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  3. Well, John, here we differ greatly. I am one who helped 'canonize' Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe. I LOVE THESE BOOKS, novels, short stories and novellas. I reread my favorites ALL the time. And each time I do, I get the same wonderful feeling of visiting grumpy friends who happen to be geniuses at what they do. Though Archie's genius is quite different from Wolfe's as they would both acknowledge. That brownstone on West 35th street seems like heaven to me, even if occasionally, someone comes in and gets bumped off.

    Archie, I admit, took me several books to get used to. But, amazingly enough, I fell in love with Wolfe and never fell out. Yes, yes, in person he would be a pain in the butt, but so what. In fact, they would be both be pains in the butt. Luckily, I can finish living with them, close the book and put it back on the shelves at the end of yet another very satisfactory read.

    As for the plotting, yes, some of it is most unlikely and several times, there are bits and pieces left untethered, but again, I say, 'so what'. I would rather go back and reread a Nero Wolfe book anytime than read most of the stuff published today in the guise of mystery fiction.

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    1. OK, Yvette calm down now. Any time I dare to show the slightest criticism of Rex and his creations someone jumps down my throat. Did you miss these phrases in my post above: "I was delighted to return", "I'm very much interested in these novellas now", "I'd very much recommend the other two novellas", etc. Maybe I'll never be one of the hardcore Stout fans, but I'm gaining a better appreciation of him now. And I really did enjoy reading the book even if one of them was hardly a mystery story at all.

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    2. Didn't mean to jump down your throat, John. Sorry if that's how it seemed. You know how excitable I am - especially when it comes to authors I adore. :) Yes, yes, I noticed your phrases and sorry for not crediting you with more fondness for Stout. At the very least, the fact that you returned to the fold for this post should have soothed my incipient rancor. :)

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  4. I am also a big fan of Wolfe and Archie. I found them even more appealing when I was younger because Archie's attitude towards women did not bother me then, growing up in the South and all. But I still love them. It is strange, for sure, the devotion to these books where fans (including myself) will read them over and over.

    I have been planning to reread this book for a while but other things get in the way. I even have a very beat up copy of the hardback with dust jacket. "Immune to Murder" is one of my favorite stories and I did read it in another anthology within the last year. I don't really pay much attention to the lack of detection in those stories after reading them so many times.

    I enjoyed your analysis of these stories. I use to like the novels more but lately I have begun to appreciate the novellas.

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  5. I've read quite a few of the novels but only one of the novellas. That particular novella, The Zero Clue, was so good that I'll definitely be looking for more.

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  6. Been awhile for me with Wolfe and Archie, too, Jon, and Too Many Detectives indeed sounds like a winner.

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  7. Stout books are some of my favorite American mysteries (along with Ellery Queen)...and those are rare since I'm such a Brit fiction girl. I haven't read these yet. I find it quite amazing how often Wolfe is actually out of the brownstone given how he makes such a big deal about never leaving it.

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    1. I know! And here it happens twice in one book, so to speak. There's an excellent trivia question for the devoted Wolfe fan. How many times in the Wolfe "corpus" is he gone from his Manhattan home? I thought it was only in SOME BURIED CAESAR and TOO MANY COOKS. Of course I'm hardly well read in Stout. To date I've read only five Wolfe novels, this novella collection and Alphabet Hicks (aka The Sound of Murder).

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    2. I agree, I have often thought there are as many books where he leaves the brownstone as not. Never have researched it though. He goes to Montenegro in THE BLACK MOUNTAIN. To Montana in DEATH OF A DUDE. He goes into hiding without Archie in IN THE BEST FAMILIES. There are several of the novellas where he leaves to go so some event.

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    3. He attends a flower show in BLACK ORCHIDS (orchids also being the reason why he was gallivanting around the countryside when he encountered the bull in SOME BURIED CAESAR).

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