The first book publication of The Red Box, the fourth Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout, was actually not the first edition; the story was serialized in The American Magazine over five issues in 1936-1937. It’s a story that begins with a beautiful model who dies after eating a piece of poisoned candy from a box that she’s stolen as a prank, in the offices of a fashion company where she is employed. The owner of the company is the next to die — in Wolfe’s office, poisoned by an aspirin tablet; before he dies, he tells Wolfe that the key to the mystery will be found in a red leather box. The third murder is committed by a trap that spills a poisonous substance upon someone getting into a car; the final death by poison is that of the murderer in Wolfe’s office.
With a story like this, you won’t be surprised to note that most of the cover artists focus on the red box itself, which is frequently conflated with the box of chocolates, and the beautiful and deceased fashion model … but there are occasional surprises, like the Jove edition that shows us the deadly aspirin tablet. Poison and orchids are a constant motif, of course.
There’s an early edition (Avon #82) from Avon that is very attractive, and was repurposed for Avon Murder Mystery Monthly #9 in 1943. But my favourite is the cheerfully vulgar Avon T-216, which shows about as much leg as was legally allowed (and changes the title to Case of the Red Box) and is a classic Good Girl Art cover. Avon #82, though, drew the attention of the New Yorker magazine, who mentioned in a small paragraph in 1946 that this book contained 17 instances where Wolfe wiggled a finger. Over the years the reprint rights devolved to Bantam, who has kept the book in print pretty much continuously ever since. It is sad to note that Nero Wolfe is now at what might be the poorest level of publishing, since Bantam is now reprinting the series in “twofer” volumes. But the first edition, a restrained design in shades of grey and red, is elegant and lovely and reminds us of former glories.
It was probably this novel to which Edmund Wilson was referring in 1944 when he complained that he felt that he was “unpacking large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails”, but most critics would be much kinder to this book than that. The solution is ingenious and depends upon Nero Wolfe’s mastery of linguistic niceties, and Archie Goodwin is his characteristically saucy self throughout. You can get a Very Good first edition in a Very Good restored jacket today for US$6,000, a nice copy of Avon T-216 for US$20, and a Kindle edition for $6.95.