I’ve been rather lazy about blogging lately, although I have to blame the pressures of work. I just don’t have a lot of time right now to write the huge chewy treatises that are the reason I got into GAD (Golden Age of Detection) blogging in the first place. It’s not that I’ve stopped reading genre fiction, far from it. But I’m accustomed to working in a leisurely way on a 5,000-word essay and, while I have a number in various stages of done-ness, I note to my surprise it’s been five weeks since I published anything.
I think the pump needs a little priming, and so I’m going to see if I can offer brief comments on books that are passing through my hands (I have a spare room filled with books that puts me a couple of boxes away from an episode of Hoarders and so books pass through my hands a LOT). So let’s see how this goes:
Too Many Women, by Rex Stout (1947)
What’s this book about?
I’ll have to assume you’re familiar with Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, as narrated by the irrepressible Archie Goodwin. If not, go and correct that mistake immediately (and in chronological order, if possible); these are magnificent stories. In this one, Wolfe sends Archie undercover at the huge Kerr-Naylor Engineering Corporation to investigate the hit-and-run death of one Waldo Wilmot Moore, employed as a correspondence checker. The very handsome Moore had attracted the attention of the wife of the company’s president, as well as the favourable glances of a room full of women employed as typists and stenographers. He was loved by women and hated by men. Archie goes in as a new employee with a flimsy cover story and soon runs up against Mr. Kerr Naylor — mid-level executive with impeccable family credentials whose mean-spirited attitude towards his fellow humans horrifies Archie, and whose abstemious vegetarian diet horrifies Wolfe. When Kerr Naylor also gets a little run down 😉 Archie intensifies his efforts and solves the case. In the meantime he runs up against an assortment of women to whom he reacts in his characteristic way.
Any Nero Wolfe novel is definitely worth reading, and that’s my starting position. They’re all better done than your run-of-the-mill detective novel; the prose is sparkling and the characterization is delightful.
In this outing, Archie is more than usually involved with women suspects and/or women informants, ranging from pretty secretaries who can’t spell right up to the middle-aged wealthy lady in mink who wants Archie to replace Waldo Moore as her — well, “escort” gives you the wrong idea. Let’s say “close personal friend”. But the high point of the book is the characterization of the acidulous Kerr Naylor, who takes Archie to what in 1947 was called a “health-food restaurant”, Fountain of Health. Naylor orders “a raw unholy mess” called “Today’s Vitanutrita Special” and follows it up with Pink Steamer — hot water with tangerine juice. Archie orders three apples and a glass of milk and saves the story for later, to annoy Wolfe.
Oh, and this is one of the novels where Archie and Wolfe are having a spat and thus making it more difficult for each other to solve the case. I expect this is because the solution would not occupy either of them very long, and this book is quite slender as it is. That merely means, for a writer of Stout’s excellence, that the story is fairly tight and moves quickly; not the brownstone’s finest moment, but none of the volumes are a disgrace.
As I noted above, I recommend that you experience these books in chronological order if you can; this is middle-period Stout, which contains what are perhaps his finest moments, but this is only a B or B+ outing. If you read it out of order, you won’t be disappointed, but a chronological reading will allow you to build up goodwill for ordinary excursions in between the truly fine works.
My favourite edition is definitely my beautiful, near-mint copy of Bantam 722, a worn copy of which is the picture shown to the left. It illustrates for me that a copy of just about any book in near-fine condition is worth paying a premium to acquire, because the value will increase as long as you maintain the quality. I paid about $35 for mine perhaps 20 years ago, and I note a similar copy on AbeBooks today listed at $157 plus shipping. Ah, if only they all appreciated like that!
Other than that, the first edition is attractive and then there is a large morass of similar editions from Bantam, with very little to tell them apart from other volumes.