The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Prisoner’s Base, by Rex Stout (1952)

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and each publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout. Stout’s stories about Nero Wolfe are called by fans the corpus and I’ll use that locution here.

WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

Prisoner’s Base (1952): A Nero Wolfe Mystery

rspb1963-1fWhat is this book about?

It’s an average day in the brownstone: Wolfe and Archie have recently been squabbling about a lack of work, and there is tension in the air. While Wolfe is in the plant rooms, a good-looking young woman arrives. Perhaps she’s a prospective client, but she’s … eccentric. She knows enough about the routine at the brownstone to arrive when Archie is alone, she doesn’t want to reveal her name, and she wants to pay $50 a day to rent the south room for a week.  While she’s locked in the south room awaiting Wolfe’s disposition, an elegant lawyer arrives and offers Wolfe $5,000 to find a young woman named Priscilla Eads who is about to turn 25; next week she will assume ownership of a ten million dollar corporation, Softdown Towels. Perry Helmar shows Wolfe photographs of Priscilla Eads that reveal her to be — the lady in the south room.

Easy money, right? But Wolfe does feel a small responsibility to the young lady whom Archie is championing. Instead of turning Priscilla over to the lawyer, he offers her two choices. Either she can pay him $10,000 for not turning her over to the lawyer while she enjoys a week in the south room, or she can have a head start until tomorrow morning, when he will talk to Perry Helmar, the lawyer. Priscilla chooses the head start, takes her bags, and leaves in a frosty temper.

prisbase5_fsThe next morning, before Wolfe’s self-imposed deadline expires, Inspector Cramer arrives and informs Archie that two murders occurred last night. One was the murder of one Margaret Fomos, whose bag and keyring were missing. She worked as a maid at the home of Priscilla Eads. The other murder was that of Priscilla Eads.

I’ll try to tell you very little beyond this point; I think you’ll want to read this book, and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment. Suffice it to say that when Wolfe learns that Archie is being questioned about Priscilla’s murder, he leaves the brownstone and travels to the police station to spring his assistant.  You know it’s serious when Wolfe has to leave the house for any reason. I’ll say that one of the murders in this story brings Archie as close to being emotionally affected by his work as you will ever see him. And Wolfe performs one of the greatest feats of ratiocination in the corpus. Hell, anywhere in Golden Age detection, which I’ll speak about below.  The story ends in a very satisfying way and Archie has an opportunity to discharge his accumulated emotional upsets with a display of his strength and physical prowess.

For years, that’s how I thought the book ended, rather abruptly but satisfyingly. Then I learned that there’s a final very brief chapter that ties everything together beautifully that appeared in the first edition and then was omitted from most paperback editions, probably accidentally. You can find it at this link provided thoughtfully by the Wolfe Pack, just one of the many reasons to be grateful to this fan organization’s diligence and scholarship.

200px-Stout-PB-1Why is this book worth your time?

To begin with, if you’re at all interested in being entertained by detective fiction, this is a Nero Wolfe novel and you should have read it already. So there’s that. ;-) The Nero Wolfe corpus is of such a uniformly high standard of intelligence and good writing that I was unable to do my usual “five most favourite/five least favourite” — because I don’t have any least favourites. They’re all great books, and every five or ten years I re-read the corpus just to remind myself of what great books they are.

Is this my most favourite episode in the corpus? That takes a little explanation. Some years ago I was involved in an online colloquium about the corpus where people contributed e-mails to a round-robin discussion of each of the books in chronological order for three weeks. (Something not unlike the Tuesday Night Bloggers.) I volunteered to moderate a discussion of this particular volume — which may be better known to some under its British title, Out Goes She — and I can’t remember taking anything so seriously for a long while. I read and re-read that book exhaustively and produced an enormous amount of material about various of its themes, including the role of women in 1952 American society (touched on here in the business sense), the language of the book, Archie Goodwin as seen within the Romantic tradition, etc.  I probably produced more words that week to prompt discussion than there are in the book! So it’s not perhaps my absolute favourite, but it is the one I know forwards and backwards.

This is not the most dramatic book Stout ever wrote, to be sure. Most Rex Stout fans have other books that they prefer, frequently ones like The Doorbell Rang or what’s known as the Zeck Trilogy. Honestly, I find those a little tiny bit overwrought. For me, Archie and Wolfe are at their best on a small, intimate scale, solving human problems for human beings; gangsters and government take away that intimacy and make the actions ring less true. This story has always rung very true for me, pretty much because it’s one of the few times that Archie actually cares about a female suspect. He flirts with them, he teases them, he romances them, but it’s clear that he regards their confidences to be Wolfe’s property and their favour to be entirely temporary. Here, Archie has a strange relationship with an attractive woman involved in the case because she is neurotic, and he seems to somehow understand her neurosis and be able to work with it where no one else can. They are forming the beginnings of an adult relationship that may actually extend beyond the confines of this volume … if it weren’t for the fact that she becomes the third victim. And Archie gives full rein to his full romantic self. Not romantic in the sense of hearts and flowers, but Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

imagesThis is Archie at his best. He feels his actions have put all the victims in danger, concatenating from his refusal to fight harder to hide Priscilla Eads in the south room for a week, and now he’s in a cold fury trying to make it up to the corpses by cooperating with the police. This is an Archie whom we do not often see. It has occasionally happened that his attractive female clients have been murdered before his eyes (Bess Huddleston, for instance); this is the one time he takes it to heart and allows his emotions to guide his actions. For me it’s a challenging moment in the corpus and one that shows Archie at an extreme. And yet the writing is so smooth and clear that it carries you along; the process for the reader is that we hear Archie’s interior monologue and his exterior interactions, and we realize what he’s not telling people (if we’re paying attention). You have to deduce what Archie is feeling, and not necessarily by paying attention to what he’s saying. I enjoy that process.

Another reason I like this book a lot is that, as I said above, Wolfe performs one of his greatest feats of deduction, worthy of John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen. And again, it’s so beautifully written, and so clear, that you don’t realize how clever it is. It’s what I call a third-level clue format.

At the first level of such logic is what I’ll call the Murder, She Wrote solution. This is where Jessica notes, as the one and only necessary clue to solve the mystery, that one suspect says something that reveals knowledge that only the murderer can have; that structure repeats again and again in the M,SW archives. That’s a positive clue. For an example of level two, I’ve written recently about one of the Thin Man films, The Thin Man Goes Home, in which the murderer does something ordinary but the fact that it is done in an ordinary way reveals that he knows that the second victim is already dead. This is a negative clue; you have to realize what didn’t happen.

nw201969-2-aThe present case is, for me, one of the few examples of level three, the equivalent of the logic that underlies a mystery at the level of Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery or John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge … telling you about it would spoil it, and for many readers it just sneaks right under their radar. Essentially the reader is operating under a misapprehension as to why and when something happens, and it’s only when Wolfe realizes what could have happened that he is able to solve the case. I have to add that this is not a locked-room mystery, or more than glancingly the same as the Byzantine murder plots that underlie Carr and Queen et al.  What I’m saying here is that there is not really a central clue that is broken and thereby reveals the solution; instead Wolfe has to examine all the suppositions that underlie what is “known” about the case, and when he finds one that is not as assured as it seems, that that leads him to the solution. You and everyone else will overlook the supposition that is not what it seems, and that’s why this is so hard to solve. And Wolfe (with Stout’s connivance) makes it all look simple.

This is Wolfe at his best. He is grumpy and irascible here, but he also demonstrates a great deal of regard for Archie. Although I have to admit that Wolfe does actually leave the house quite often, this is one of the times that he does it in order to rescue Archie, and those are few and far between.

So: Wolfe at his best, Archie at his best, an intimate plot, an astonishing puzzle and a surprising solution. Definitely worth your time, and a good book with which to introduce people to the brownstone.

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Nero Wolfe continuation novels by Robert Goldsborough

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and each publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Nero Wolfe continuation novels by Robert Goldsborough

51ATl2tNWtL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_In the last few months, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the continuation novel. Perhaps it was prompted by the reading I had been doing, around the time I was preparing a large post on Ellery Queen, one of the widest-ranging brands in the history of detective fiction, including quite a bit on how continuation novels work. (You can look at it here if you’re interested.)

I do remember, though, that the publication of Robert Goldsborough’s
51Yixsdn1EL._AC_UL320_SR208,320_first continuation novel featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, 1986’s Murder in E Minor, was the first time I’d ever really noticed the phenomenon. I’d seen it before, of course, particularly in the science-fiction field. But there was a bit of hubbub in the publishing world about this particular bit of continuation work because, as I understood it from a distance, a rather sizeable contingent of (New York-based) Wolfe fans objected to the idea that Nero Wolfe should be continued at all. It was the first time anyone had ever expressed
41YqtpApQWL._AC_UL320_SR222,320_an opinion that wasn’t in favour of continuation novels, as far as I’d ever heard, and it was a nine days’ wonder in bookselling circles.

Robert Goldsborough, now in his late 70s, had been a writer all his professional life, first as a reporter and then later on the editorial staff of Advertising Age magazine.  The story is that he wrote Murder in E Minor to amuse his invalid mother, never intending that it should see publication; one thing led to another
Coincidence2_fsand the Stout estate licensed that particular novel, and then a bunch more by this author.

The moral and ethical ramifications of continuation novels are not very interesting to me because, unlike the administrators of Rex Stout’s estate, I am not in a position to do anything about my opinions and so they are merely idle speculation. In general, though, people who think that fictional characters should be allowed to die with their creators are not usually the ones who own valuable copyrights and/or administer literary estates;
77118they can license the work and nobody can stop them. Apparently other contentious fans felt that no one could ever possibly live up to the high standard set by Rex Stout in his writing. Frankly, I agree. I didn’t see that a continuation author necessarily had to be stupid and uncaring, though, and I maintained an open mind before I got hold of a copy of Murder in E Minor.

This novel (1986) had an interesting central tiny clue that revealed the solution to Nero Wolfe and then to us;
1024767I won’t say what it is, but if you have read the entire corpus of Wolfe novels, you will recognize it from another novel, albeit in a different form. In other words, Goldsborough took the central clue from another Stout novel and fiddled with it in order to produce the central clue of his novel. I thought this was clever, and showed that there was a sincere attempt to capture the flavour of Stout’s plotting. If you have read the entire corpus, this novel at least is certainly worth your time, although I cannot say whether it will annoy you or amuse you.

783122dc791e766877fcf1ecb9ddda08-w204@1xSix more novels followed in quick succession; these attained wide distribution through being issued in “cheap editions” through a large American book club and, based on the numbers that passed through my hands in this edition and in paperback, seemed to be moderately popular. These novels occasionally dipped into the waters of politics and current events, and I hasten to note that this also is something that Rex Stout did himself, in novels like A Right To Die and The Doorbell Rang.

1650x2550srSome people disagreed with the idea of Archie and Wolfe changing with the times, and preferred that they remain frozen in some 1950s limbo. Well, that wasn’t Stout’s view either (the events of the final Stout novel, A Family Affair, certainly show that Stout was prepared to alter the ongoing cast of characters). Others complained that Goldsborough was “making Archie and Wolfe do things they would never do.” What that appears to mean is that these fictional characters have some kind of internal consistency and that Goldsborough had somehow violated
51Tn598qj3L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_it. Again, I disagree; I think Goldsborough ably walked the fine line between “We can’t do anything that hasn’t already been done” and “We have to introduce new situations or else the characters stagnate.” Goldsborough didn’t innovate anything wildly contrarian, such as marrying off any of the characters or having Fritz cook hamburgers or Nero Wolfe take up racquetball. Neither did he slavishly repeat the themes and solutions of Stout. Instead, he wrote mysteries that had as their background things like date rape, right-wing
51O3m3Ubo1L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_university professors, televangelists, and media moguls; perhaps not exactly what Stout would have done, but he would have been taking on similarly difficult and up-to-the-minute topics.

At the time, though, I felt that the second through sixth novels were lacking … something. There was some kind of vital spark that had invested Stout’s writing about Wolfe, and while Goldsborough was doing a very competent job at recreating the brownstone and its inhabitants and the
51-wB9iNQ1L._AC_UL320_SR208,320_kinds of things that would occupy them, there was no great drive to … how shall I put this?  … to have these books exist. It’s as though they were contractual obligations, but that Goldsborough had somehow lost the impetus that had brought the first book into being. There, it was clear that Goldsborough really loved Nero Wolfe. Five books later, his ardour had cooled.

And then came book seven, 1994’s The Missing Chapter. This gets a little complex, so bear with me.  The story is about Wolfe’s investigation of the murder of a writer who does continuation novels about a famous detective whose original author has died.  Yes, really. The continuer has angered a number of people (among them his agent, his editor, and his chief critic) in both his professional and personal life and shows up dead. Goldsborough really gets into this one, as perhaps the best qualified writer to talk about crabby fans who call the continuation author out on minutiae, publishers and editors who micro-manage his writing and exploit him personally, and other authors who look down their noses at him for doing continuation novels. There is also a respectful and charming portrait of a couple of prominent members of the Wolfe Pack, one of the classiest groups in the entire fannish world.

I really enjoyed The Missing Chapter and hoped for more of the same, but didn’t realize for a while that publicly making fun of publishers, agents, and fans is not perhaps the best way to ensure your long-term survival in the continuation business. For whatever reason, and I hasten to add that I have zero in the way of first-hand knowledge or fact, Goldsborough stopped writing Wolfe novels.

That is, for 18 years. I think I and everyone else had abandoned the idea that we were going to see another Goldsborough continuation until, all of a sudden, in 2012, we got Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, which is based on a really clever idea. In the first Nero Wolfe novel and dotted in bits throughout the corpus was the story of how Wolfe and Archie came to meet. Goldsborough took those minutiae, thus delighting some of his critics, and wove them into the story of the case where Wolfe and Archie decide to form a long-term association. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and was happy to see Goldsborough back. It had rather felt like this was a story that he had wanted to tell. He had written four books in a different mystery series (entirely his own) between 2005 and 2009 but … well, perhaps the money is better with Wolfe.

There are three further sequels in the pipeline, one as yet unpublished (it’s due March, 2016, and called Stop the Presses!). Murder in the Ball Park was an undistinguished story that took advantage of Goldsborough’s personal interest in baseball; I haven’t yet read 2015’s Archie in the Crosshairs.

I don’t think anyone could seriously say that I am uncritical about mysteries; I have a popular series of reviews I call “100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read” that’s quite acidulous about books I can find reasons to strongly dislike, including the continuation novel of Perry Mason that is the subject of the link. But continuation novels, merely by the fact of their being continuation novels?  I’d prefer to judge for myself. I think the Goldsborough continuations are charming, smart, and well-written and I think if you enjoy Nero Wolfe, you will likely enjoy them.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Rex Stout, Week 2

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’re now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Here they are, alphabetically:

Al, Paperback RevolutionRex Stout in UK Services Editions (Welcome, Al, and thanks for your contribution!)

Kate Jackson, crossexaminingcrimeDepiction of Race in Rex Stout’s A Right to Die (1964)

Tracy K., Bitter Tea and MysteryNon-Wolfe Mystery Novels by Rex Stout

Jeffrey Marks, The Corpse Steps OutFive Favourite Wolfes

Moira Redmond, Clothes in BooksA Crime Against Rex Stout

Noah Stewart, Noah’s ArchivesSome lesser known titles by Rex Stout

Helen Szamuely, Your Freedom and Ours: Rex Stout’s Other Detectives

Again, I’ll repeat my suggestion that if you have a blog and wish to join us, just get in touch.  And if you DON’T have a blog and wish to participate, let me know and I’ll find you a blog to which you can post as a guest.  Anything on the topic of Rex Stout this month will be welcome!

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Some lesser-known titles by Rex Stout

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Rex Stout’s lesser-known titles

A lot of my fellow bloggers will be focused on the exploits of Nero Wolfe, and deservedly so. Nero Wolfe is one of the greatest literary creations of the 20th century; the books are original, intelligent, emotionally resonant, and have that strange quirkiness that seems to convince everyone who reads them that there actually is a brownstone on West 35th and Wolfe is at this moment yelling at Archie about the germination cards.  I love the Nero Wolfe stories, all of them, and I expect to talk about at least one of them this month.  But Rex Stout wrote for many, many years, and produced some very interesting work before he settled into the corpus exclusively. There is a lot of merit (and some silliness) in these stories and you may want to experience them for yourself.  Here are some of the high spots.

Stout-Hand_in_GloveThe Hand in the Glove: A Dol Bonner Mystery (1937)

Let’s start with the very best. If, perish forbid, Stout had never thought of Nero Wolfe, we might today be discussing the merits of about 35 volumes of the exploits of Dol Bonner, and the entire course of detective fiction would have been changed.  The idea of a female private investigator, or investigator in any sense, was flirted with occasionally by perhaps a double handful of early writers, but no single character really caught the public’s attention (despite a strong showing from Erle Stanley Gardner’s Bertha Cool) until Marcia Muller’s first Sharon McCone novel transformed the genre in 1977.  (It’s called Edwin of the Iron Shoes, and it’s worth your time; remember, she was inventing what a later generation of writers took for granted.)

dell0177Rex Stout almost managed it, though. To this day I’m not sure just why Theodolinda “Dol” Bonner, running her own private investigation agency, didn’t catch on. To me, this novel is catchy and clever, and manages to balance strongly logical ratiocinative thinking with some powerful emotional work. It is literally a country house mystery; wealthy P. L. Storrs is surrounded by his family, his associates, and his neighbours at his country estate, Birchhaven, when he is found strangled by being hung from a
dell0177backtree with wire. This is the same thing that’s been happening at a neighbour’s game farm with pheasants and small animals, but Storrs’ death starts a furore that embroils everyone for miles and results in another death before Dol identifies the killer and threatens to shoot that person in the kneecap if a full confession is not forthcoming.  I don’t want to give too much of this away, but Dol is the only person who realizes the importance of a pair of gloves to a murder by wire, and goes looking for them.  She finds them inside a hollowed-out watermelon, and just exactly why and how makes for a fascinating few chapters.  Perhaps readers didn’t like that Dol is a self-declared “man-hater” who refuses romantic involvements coldly and vehemently; what we might describe today as a bristly and angry early feminist.  To me, that’s fascinating, but it might not have been what the reader of 1937 was looking for.  For whatever reason, this was the first and last Dol Bonner novel.  She reappears a couple of times later on in the corpus, notably The Mother Hunt where Archie needs female operatives to act as nursemaids, and she appears to have spent the rest of her life running her own agency. The source novel engendered a made-for-TV movie from 1992 called “Lady Against The Odds” which stars Crystal Bernard … I’m not a fan but it has its adherents.

I think this is a vitally important point in the history of the 20th century female private investigator novel and I urge you to find a copy for yourself. My own favourite is, as usual, the mapback version from Dell but the first edition is also strongly graphic and beautiful.  I gave a copy of this to a mystery writer friend of mine who intended to teach a university class on feminism and mysteries. Nora Kelly’s comment to me was, “Why does no one KNOW about this?” You may share her pleasure.

two_complete_detective_books_194303Three Tecumseh Fox mysteries

Tecumseh Fox mysteries are … meh. They’re well written and not stupid, but they’re missing some essential spark of vivacity that they require, and Stout had missed whatever it was.  Tecumseh Fox is a “quirky” private investigator but no one ever comes right out and says anything about him that makes much sense in that context. To me he just seems grumpy and unpredictable, but energetic and
doubledeathfrontinterested in solving his cases. The first one, Double for Death (1939) is everyone’s favourite but mine; I actually prefer both the other two, 1940’s Bad for Business and 1941’s The Broken Vase.  Double for Death has a bitterly ironic twist in its finish that everyone enjoys; for me the central clue is telegraphed. Both the other two exhibit more subtlety in clueing. Stout reworked Bad For Business as a Nero Wolfe novella, “Bitter End”, in the same year, so apparently he liked the idea but not the characters.  The location of the central clue is certainly amusing, and the puzzle depends upon the reader being quite acute about a casual remark by one minor character, which I like.

Some other mysteries

5636305009_5535c76c3f_bRed Threads is a 1939 mystery starring Inspector Cramer, Wolfe’s constant antagonist, who here is sympathetic and helpful. The protagonist is a young female fabric designer — she shares her avocation with Stout’s wife Pola, and so that part of it is intriguing and interesting and rings with truth.  There’s a bunch of hooey about what are called “Indians” (in my part of the world the preferred term is “First Nations”), and it is so stereotyped and awful that it seriously mars the book for me.  The book is centred around a romance and ends happily; Stout was good at writing those romantic stories, I think.

alphabet_hicksAlphabet Hicks (1941, also published as The Sound of Murder) is about a detective named Alphabet Hicks who is pretty much the same person as Tecumseh Fox.  He’s quirky and unpredictable but there is nothing real underneath the quirks.  His one outing depends, unfortunately, on convincing the reader that two people’s voices sound exactly the same and would be mistaken one for the other. That may be the case, but it’s a story that is hard to tell in the written word.

Stout-Mountain_CatThe Mountain Cat Murders (1939) is set in a small town in Wyoming and features a spunky young woman trying to solve the deaths of her father and mother. The “Mountain Cat” is a glamorous, wealthy, and often-married playgirl who is easily the most interesting character in the book; the mystery is competent but essentially dull. One point in the solution involving an illiterate miner is … far-fetched.

Two strange novels

438f09964bfb8f5e9e2764f9081e1eeeHonestly, I can’t recommend that you track down and read How Like A God, Stout’s “breakout novel” of 1929 that brought him to the public’s attention. It took me a few years to find a copy and I was almost sorry I’d found it, since the anticipation was much, much more pleasant than the achievement. This is a novel written in the second person, and I hope — sorry, you hope you’ll never have to go through that again, because you find it so damn disconcerting and unnecessary. It also has some of what a friend of mine calls “steamy bits” which are not as steamy as they must have been in 1929; as well, Stout seems to have been rather prudish about saying what he was getting at.

President_Vanishes1_fsMuch, much more interesting, I trust, is The President Vanishes, Stout’s one outing into the “political thriller”, published anonymously in 1934. There is a lot of stuff here that I wish I had the education in American history to be able to appreciate; it is clear that Stout is taking off “brownshirts” and fascism, and political laziness, and the far right wing. There is a lot of social history material here that I am only poorly equipped to grasp. What I do see is that Stout had the knack of writing a suspenseful thriller; if he had started writing them later on into their history, I think he would have produced some good ones.  There was a money-losing eponymous film made the same year; the film was protested by a Catholic morality organization for no really good reason that I can see, but again, this is social history beyond my knowledge. The book itself you may find boring and antique; I would actually agree but gee, there are the bones of a damn good book buried in there.

fb3c7e06498c97959796b4e5a674141414d6741There are other novels and stories; I understand that a very early story whose events form the basis for Fer-de-Lance and a few uncollected pieces have just very recently been collected, so there’s something out there for even the most well-read Stoutian. There is a strange “lost world adventure” called Under the Andes from 1914, there are a couple of what I think of as Oppenheimerish Ruritanian romantic stories, and just generally a handful of stories from the slicks that don’t prefigure much of the excellence which Stout was preparing to achieve with Nero Wolfe. Nothing especially stands out unless you happen to be interested in the cognates of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Pellucidar stories. And finally, Forest Fire (1933) is a novel with some early LGBT interest that may make you think of Rod Steiger in The Sergeant; it’s tough going as a novel, though, especially since this is another one where Stout is being oblique and prudish.

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Book scouting Rex Stout

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Book scouting Rex Stout

Rex Stout is one of my favourite all-time mystery writers … I discovered him in my teens and quickly read pretty much everything he ever wrote (it took me a few years to track down the more esoteric items).  He published books from 1913 until just before his death in 1975; you can imagine that his books were designed with almost every imaginable cover style over the years.  He was published by a number of different publishers before he settled down to his long association with Viking Press in hardcover and Bantam in paperback.Over the coming weeks I hope to bring you some blog pieces on some of his lesser-known work, specifically things that are not part of the Nero Wolfe canon (or, as it’s known punningly to Wolfe fans, the corpus, since Nero Wolfe has a large body and Rex Stout has a large body of work).  There’s been an awful lot written over the years about Nero Wolfe, including a couple of full-length studies, and somewhat less attention has been paid to his non-mystery work and his other detectives.  I hope to do a little bit to rectify that.

Stout_Door_to_death_Dell_10-cent-1But first, since I’ve been told you all like my display of lovely paperback covers, I thought I’d give you an idea of some of the things that an experienced book scout would be looking to find.  Of course, the really valuable editions are hardcover first editions, especially the earliest titles with gorgeous illustrations of orchids on the cover.  But over the years Stout was published in a number of unusual paperback editions for which you could be keeping your eyes open as you rummage through old bookstores.

Of particular note here: I’ve added a couple of quite rare items that you may never find, including the scarce-as-hen’s-teeth limited edition of Corsage and the Dell Ten Cent edition of Door to Death (a standalone publication of one of the three stories in Three Doors to Death).  I thought you also might like to see a few examples of a magazine-sized format that was published under the Rex Stout name; he had little to do with it, but you can make a nice chunk of change if you find a copy.

4755239475_6065d1f68a_mThere are Dell mapbacks, early Pocket editions, plenty of early Avon (including one of the “picture frame” series), a Lion Library, a Mercury Mystery, and quite a few Bantams.  And I’ve included one “ringer” to amuse you; it’s a British hardcover edition with a new title.  See if you can spot it and full marks if you know the American title to which it refers.  Hint: It refers to the same game in both places, just with a different name and different rules.

Notice how fashions in illustration change?  Back in the 40s and 50s, it was apparently necessary to show an illustration of Wolfe himself on the cover … when Bantam took over, they reduced him to a silhouette, a disembodied head, and then finally banished him entirely.  And although the jackets of the early first editions relied heavily on illustrations involving orchids, you will hardly see them at all on the paperbacks — even the one that mentions orchids in the title.

d7ba1a34451475b5e6a53095d1bee5f3 227 Rex Stout The Silent Speaker Bantam048 14671062636_c51870842a 28 Rex Stout 3 Doors to Death Dell052 367-1 940909925e3ae08d1dadee4b2184c696 BookIfDeathEverSlept 4008622dbe7a51d5ee72413a19bed4d1 24 Rex Stout Prisoner's Base Bantam 1963 1 Double for Death - cov imagesrex_stout_quarterly_1945spr_v1_n1 RexStout8 md17229262059 18464e5ddecce945fa35d40b025c9cdb rex_stout_quarterly_1945fll_v1_n2

images-1 16 Rex Stout~DOUBLE FOR DEATH~1943 Vintage DELL MAPBACK 135 Rex Stout Not Quite Dead Enough Dell 1 6401932407_16d0bf4dec 2a1d47cbc17b663ac6ab4926ee3a85bb 127666 Stout-FDL-2 d96d6846219755b22cb75391153a624e 387-1 a1838bfe8e3a5ac6dd1fc30d341227ca

 

 

 

 

 

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Where do we go from here?

The Tuesday Night Bloggers

A clever logo produced by group member Bev Hankins.

About a month ago, The Tuesday Night Bloggers (TNB) began as a kind of impromptu celebration of all things Agatha Christie to celebrate her 125th birthday. (I’m including this explanation for people who aren’t members of our mutual Facebook group, Golden Age Detection. If you have a sincere interest in Golden Age mysteries, you’re welcome to join us here. Well-informed and friendly people, a good time is had by all, and remarkably close to zero fistfights.) Essentially seven members of this Facebook group decided that they were going to post something in their own blogs about Agatha Christie every Tuesday for what turned out to be a little more than the month of October, 2015. Yes, we’re still doing it. I’ve personally had fun working to a tighter deadline than “whenever”, and it encouraged me to find interesting things to present that could be explained in 500 words or so. Which, as you know, for me is barely a clearing of the throat ;-)

dc9f2677eTuesday Night Bloggers (alphabetically by last name;the blog’s name links to the blog)

In conversation with a couple of my fellow TNB bloggers, I’ve learned that they are attracting a new and improved readership as a result of these Christie posts, as have I. Apparently people come for the Christie and look around for the Golden Age mystery, I guess, and welcome aboard! So I was wondering what would happen if we kept up the frequency but changed the topic a little bit … and we’re about to find out.

roundtableThe seven bloggers in Tuesday Night Bloggers have come to an agreement that, provisionally at least, we’re going to keep posting on Tuesdays but we’re going to change the topic once a month. We’re going to talk about a different Golden Age writer for a month of Tuesdays, and hope that our new readers are as interested in the other major names as they have been in Agatha Christie.

Personally I think this is going to work best if we focus on the major writers — as I put it, writers with a large number of novels that have been printed in a large number of editions. My TNB friends are all all aware of mystery writers whose work is rare and expensive, and when we find rare and expensive novels that we enjoyed or understood, I believe we’ll continue to bring you our opinions. (E.C.R. Lorac and Miles Burton are the literary equivalent of $500/bottle Scotch!)  In the meantime there are a bunch of Golden Age writers whose names many people will recognize and whose books are abundantly available at libraries and bookstores, and I think our breadth of information can shed light on these writers in a way that will interest people who may only be glancingly familiar with their work, or even people very familiar with their output. If you’ve read two Ngaio Marsh novels, well, we’ve frequently read all 29, and we have reasons why we like our favourites that we’ll share with you. I’m hoping this will encourage more people to share our pleasure in Golden Age mysteries.

sdc13504So here’s the list of suggested topics for a year.

  • October: Agatha Christie
  • November: Ellery Queen
  • December: Ngaio Marsh
  • January: Rex Stout
  • February: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • March: John Dickson Carr
  • April: Phoebe Atwood Taylor
  • May: Erle Stanley Gardner
  • June: Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • July: Arthur Upfield
  • August: Patricia Wentworth
  • September: S. S. Van Dine

Believe me, I’m open to changing this list, any part of it or any name on it. (I alternated males and females.) And I know that the TNB would join me in welcoming any blogger with an interest in Golden Age mysteries to add his/her blog to this list, even if — especially if — they’re not members of our Facebook group. There is no need to post every single Tuesday, for existing members or new ones; I’m sure we’d even welcome guests who merely wanted to contribute a single post from their own blog.

Your comments below are welcome and earnestly solicited. I have shamelessly swiped the logo that Bev Hankins designed for the group since I like it better than mine (and I will now retire my variant terminology for this effort of Tuesday Club Murders); thank you Bev!

 

 

Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

NeroWolfeWhat’s this book about?

Most aficionados of detective fiction are familiar with the exploits of Nero Wolfe, the corpulent private detective who directs the activities of his associate Archie Goodwin in some 70 recorded cases written by Rex Stout (and a handful of licensed continuations by Robert Goldsborough). Nero Wolfe has been the subject of two films, four radio series, and two television series — you can read all about him in his Wikipedia entry here.

This book is what used to be called an “appreciation” — perhaps it still would be. It consists of a recapitulation of the plots of all extant novels and short stories as at the date of publication. Both Rex Stout and the series were still alive at this point and my first paperback edition is missing information about the final three novels, a couple of short story accumulations, and all of Robert Goldsborough’s continuation novels. As well, since all the stories take place against a common background of Wolfe’s New York brownstone and a recurring cast of characters, the volume accumulates what is known of persons, places, and things that figure in what has become known as the “corpus“. Corpus is a play on words referring to Wolfe’s bulky body and the complete oeuvre of his fictional adventures. As the back cover blurb on my first paperback edition (shown above) indicates, this is “a handbook for informed appreciation, a compendium and a chronology”. There is nothing here that attempts to bring any new understanding to where the character comes from, or to deepen your understanding of Nero Wolfe’s place in detective fiction; this is merely an assembly of facts and citations.

f643024128a041cb24846010Why is this worth reading?

It’s not.

This is because we now have Wikipedia and the internet; anyone can now indulge him- or herself in whatever level of information and speculation they wish about the exact dimensions of Wolfe’s office, the placement of his red leather chairs, how many cookbooks precisely are on the shelves of his chef Fritz, etc. The publication dates and plot summaries of every single Nero Wolfe volume are available from Wikipedia and a number of other websites. There are single-purpose Wolfe-oriented discussion groups (one of which I helped moderate for a few years), organizations like the Wolfe Pack operate websites and have physical meetings, etc. The functions of this volume have been entirely superseded by the internet.

In fact, I’m kind of at a loss to know why this volume was published at all, although until Penguin reprinted it in trade paperback format I used to sell a lot of used paperback copies of the Bantam edition to Wolfe aficionados at fairly high prices. There is nothing in this book that one cannot glean from reading the novels themselves and, honestly, the novels are much, much better written and more lively. If you have read the books, then you don’t need plot recaps. If you haven’t read them, well, there is a faint likelihood that it will be of benefit to you to know what you’ve missed, but isn’t it better to merely obtain a list of the books and tick them off as you go? And if you for some unfathomable reason cannot live without knowing the dimensions of Wolfe’s office — his fictional office, I hasten to add, and subject like everything else in the corpus to the vagaries of Rex Stout’s constant forgetfulness of minor details — then that information can be gleaned from the novels themselves, and you can spend an evening if you so desire in drawing up a floor plan and trying to imagine what the waterfall picture looks like. This volume, incidentally, does not contain such a floor plan.

But if you are a Nero Wolfe fan, and you have tracked down a copy of Where There’s A Will complete with photographs, and you have spent a month’s rent on a first edition of Corsage, and have a copy of every Tecumseh Fox mystery and Alphabet Hicks mysteries and the Dol Bonner mystery, and Double for Death in the mapback edition, and the book/movie The President Vanishes, and the Nero Wolfe Cookbook, and all the Goldsborough novels, and and and — then you will not strain at the gnat, relatively speaking, that is this volume. You can acquire a copy on Abebooks for under $10 as of this writing. One of the entries for the hardcover first says “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” And that sentiment brings me to my point.

In recent months I have been giving thought to “tie-ins”. These are artifacts that are connected with fictional characters but not usually invented by the original creator of that character. I’ve posted an article (found here) about Sophie Hannah’s authorized continuation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot character, The Monogram Murders. My piece here talks at some length about the relationship between the book and the film of S. S. Van Dine’s The Gracie Allen Murder Case, and goes into the nascent industry of the movie tie-in novel represented by such volumes as Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. My piece even notes the existence of a Milton Bradley board game called “The Gracie Allen Murder Case Game” marketed as an adjunct to the short-lived film that will set you back a cool $700 or so IF you can find a well-worn copy, which you probably can’t; it’s bloody rare indeed.

In 2015, the movie tie-in paperback has perhaps waned in popularity from its zenith in, perhaps, the 80s and 90s, where it was very nearly obligatory for every film being marketed to boys and young men to come with its accompanying novelization (a kind of prosodic dumbing-down of the plot of the film in simple English), and for films featuring handsome male actors and/or musicians addressed to girls and young women to have an accompanying novelization in slightly higher-level language but more colour close-up photos tipped into the centre. Tie-in novels have rather died down in the subsequent years, but the concept is still going strong in ways you may find difficult to believe. Murder, She Wrote was last broadcast in 1996 (although there were four subsequent made-for-TV movies). Donald Bain, listed as co-author with the imaginary Jessica Fletcher, has published 35 volumes in the series of novels featuring Jessica Fletcher, most in hardcover; two a year for quite a while, including 2015. Thirty-five volumes, still going strong almost 20 years after the last episode of the TV series — quite an achievement.

In a very general sense, a tie-in is a commercial product that is associated with a character, either real or imaginary, but that does not contribute to the original purpose or reason for the celebrity of that character. Jessica Fletcher was the main character of a television series; therefore, novels — as well as lunch boxes, memo pads, aprons, tote bags, coffee cups, and “appreciations” — which feature that character are all tie-in materials.

There are mysteries which purport to be written by celebrities like Martina Navratilova and Willie Shoemaker, and ones which apparently actually were written by Steve Allen. Those are tie-ins to celebrity. There are ancillary novels that accompany various series of films and television; Quantum Leap books, Babylon 5 novels, Indiana Jones adventures, and enough Star Trek novels to sink a Battleship — which also has its own movie tie-in novel. Frankly, the thought of a board game becoming a film which is then turned into a novel fills me with wildly mixed emotions ranging from nausea to hilarity, but mostly I find it bathetic in the extreme. That novel must take awfulness to a new Stygian depth. I have the weird feeling that if I open the novel, I’ll implode and form a new Heinleinian multiverse, or something.

What the tie-in process boils down to, though, is that a writer creates a character; in this case, Nero Wolfe. The character becomes very popular and people are anxious to get, and read, new books in the series. (Or to experience new Indiana Jones films or watch new episodes featuring Jessica Fletcher or, way back when, listen to new radio episodes featuring The Shadow.) The original material doesn’t appear fast enough to suit enthusiastic fans, and this is where tie-in materials start to be created. What also happens, of course, is that the creation of these tie-in materials makes economic sense to someone. If you can create a lunch box for $1 and sell it for $3, fine. But if you can put a picture of Donny Osmond on it and sell it for $7, even if you have to pay Mr. Osmond $1 for the privilege, you are doing very well indeed. A $3 lunch box works as well as a $7 lunch box; what you are saying is that you like Donny Osmond and want your luncheon companions to know that, and it’s worth $4 to be able to say so.

Back in the day, this was a primitive form of branding. The manufacturers of Ovaltine knew that children liked radio stories about Little Orphan Annie and so created mugs for drinking Ovaltine with pictures of Little Orphan Annie on them. Note that in the old days, these things related directly; Ovaltine provided mugs from which one could drink Ovaltine, and this is an elegant closed circle. It didn’t take long to figure out, though, that there were two ways in which this process could be made to pay. One is that the tie-in didn’t have to relate directly to the character; for instance, a Little Orphan Annie colouring book. The other is that sometimes it is worthwhile to create tie-in materials that are nearly worthless and give them to children (and credulous adults) as ways of cementing brand loyalty. Hence, the Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring. If you listened to the radio program and possessed a decoder ring, you would receive secret messages which you could decode — mostly, as I understand it, having to do with the advisability of drinking lots of Ovaltine. If you were a child who was not in possession of the ring, your ring-less status was derided by your friends and it was clear that you were not getting the full benefit of your fannish appreciation of Little Orphan Annie. Children who owned rings were au courant with the cultural zeitgeist, although I doubt they’d have expressed it that way. Either way, children drank more Ovaltine and more than repaid the cost of the nearly worthless rings.

As time marched on and branding became a more sophisticated process, the existence of tie-ins was a signal of a certain level of brand involvement by the parent company. The folks at Disney were the masters of such branding programs. When the very first sketches were being laid down for the first nascent ideas that were to become, say, The Lady and the Tramp — those sketches were also passed to the marketing department to get to work on Lady and the Tramp comic books and plastic toys and lunch boxes and colouring books and dozens of other things. And the number and extent of such tie-in materials signalled the level of investment that the parent company found worthwhile. Lassie and Dan’l Boone had huge ancillary marketing materials in hundreds of categories; a decade later, The Munsters and The Partridge Family took those numbers into the thousands. You could sleep on Munsters sheets and eat Munsters cereal from Munsters bowls, and carry your Munsters lunchbox home from school while wearing your Eddie Munster jacket, read a Munsters comic book, and play with your glow-in-the-dark Munsters toys and games, while signed-in-plate photographs of Butch Patrick and Yvonne de Carlo smiled down from your bedroom walls. There was no limit to the things upon which Munsters iconography could be stencilled — that is, until they went off the air and everyone had to have a Star Trek lunchbox. There’s no money in static branding.

And so I believe that the adults to whom brands and characters were marked with tie-in materials became accustomed to thinking of characters as the appropriate subject of tie-in materials. For something to be culturally significant, it had to be accompanied by tie-in materials; and this brings us finally back to Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street. As I said, there is really no reason for this volume to exist. It is a kind of cooing noise expressing pleasure at the idea of Nero Wolfe. But it was created, and marketed, as “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” That’s an idea that deserves a little unpacking.

wolfe-plaqueWhat exactly is a “serious” Rex Stout collection? I’d venture to say that it’s one that is worth the most money. But I have been in the position of selling relatively worthless objects at hefty prices — like, for instance, first editions of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street — to people who didn’t want them for some pleasure that they’d receive by reading the book, but merely wished to possess a copy of the book so that they could say they owned one. So that, indeed, they could prove they had a “serious” collection. I think a “serious” collection can be paradoxically defined as the one that contains the highest number of frivolous objects. The less the object has to do with the original character, the more it’s only in the possession of the “serious” collector. The possessors of these serious collections are thoroughly convinced that the money they spent on acquiring them will be recompensed some day, perhaps by an envious younger person who will double or triple the price paid in order to acquire the tie-in object. But for an example of where that goes wrong, I give you (a) Beanie Babies; (b) the egregious and nearly worthless objects known as “collector plates”; (c) the entire output of the Franklin Mint. Did you pay $500 for a copy of a script from the original Nero Wolfe TV program, apparently annotated in Lee Horsley’s handwriting? Kiss your $500 good-bye, unless you can find someone with the same disease you caught; you may have to infect them personally with the importance and significance and sheer gravitas of such a scarce object.

As to why one would have a Nero Wolfe “collection” that consisted of anything more than novels written about Nero Wolfe — your guess is as good as mine. I confess to having owned a “Nero Wolfe” necktie that is vaguely orchidaceous, that I bought at the time of the Timothy Hutton TV series; it’s a nice tie, but I never wore it and gave it to my brother. I bought it because it was attractive, not because it was associated with the program. It cost me about twice as much as it should have. I have a copy of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street that originally sold for 75 cents; I paid $3 for it, and I would expect to get $5, possibly from one of my readers. That’s the used book business; old books are worth what they will bring from a knowledgeable reader. I paid $35 for a bootleg DVD of 1937’s The League of Frightened Men, because I wanted badly to see it; I wasted $35.

In fact, I actually really, really like the Nero Wolfe novels and stories; I’m well versed in their details and chronology. I’ve read every single one, again and again. I can quote chunks of them. But let me confess; I don’t care in the slightest how big the front room is, or how big the globe is, or the dimensions of the waterfall picture. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t CARE. I like the characters, I like the writing, and I like the spirit and feeling of the books. But by and large, I can tell you — anyone who is trying to convince you that there is something called a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” is trying to take your money. I know this, because I have stood behind the counter of a mystery bookstore and sold people copies of this book, and the Cadfael Companion, and a twee little volume purporting to detail the Wimsey family history, and Agatha Christie tote bags, and Murder, She Wrote coffee cups, at a minimum of 100% markup and, frankly, whatever the traffic would bear. I did that so that I could afford to keep the store’s doors open to make copies of really good, well-written mysteries available to people who wanted to read them, but the people who manufactured the coffee cups have no such excuse.

I have no objection to getting together with like-minded people to discuss the novels and stories, as long as it doesn’t get too out of hand. Most members of organizations like the Wolfe Pack are sensible and intelligent bibliophiles who esteem the same fiction I do, and know the difference between a first edition in jacket of Fer-de-Lance and a TV script that Lee Horsley has scribbled on. In fact, some of my best friends, et cetera. I enjoy finding depths of meaning and a better understanding of American cultural themes and motifs in the books, and I enjoy discussing those things with other people. But if you come to me looking for my $3 paperback of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, I might take $5 but I’ll try to stick you for $12 — and I’m a relatively nice person. Other merchants will not be so kind, and you may end up with a sample of Lee Horsley’s handwriting at vastly inflated prices.

If you think you need to have a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” — try and understand that that really consists of fiction written featuring Nero Wolfe. Be well-read rather than “serious”; buy the novel and not the lunch box. And leave this book alone.

51pwNjGwcbL._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My favourite edition

I have a first paperback edition that I skimmed to write this piece, and I’ve had and sold a number of copies of the first edition; since I always made more money from the true first, seen here, I suppose it would be my favourite edition. It’s certainly the one with the best graphic design of any I’ve seen. As of today on Abebooks, a decent copy should set you back somewhere around $25 depending on where you live. Beware of the BCE (book club edition), which looks quite similar but is relatively valueless.

My least favourite volume

I will add here that if you think I was hard on THIS volume, I reserve the utmost scorn and disapproval for a similar volume by one Ken Darby. William Baring-Gould was merely an enthusiastic fanboi before the term existed, albeit a literate and well-read one; Darby regurgitates the same material in worse prose and less exact detail and, to my enormous distaste, stops for a wholly unnecessary chapter to “prove” that any rumours that Messrs. Goodwin and Wolfe are gay are false and vile canards, and says a lot of nasty things about homosexuality in the process. Frankly, I’m gay and had never even considered such an idea; it’s directly contradicted over and over by the Stout-written stories themselves. I gather that the Darby book is out of print and relatively unavailable, and in my opinion it should stay that way, because the author was a vulgar and homophobic toad. I’ll decline to provide you with the title of this piece de merde or even to tag his name; let the book die in its well-deserved obscurity.