Some thoughts on Herbert Resnicow’s mysteries

Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of their potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about quite a few novels of Herbert Resnicow. In no instance here do I reveal the identity of a murderer, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read Resnicow’s works, they will have lost their power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read his books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. (The second-last paragraph mentions the two volumes by name that I think you will enjoy the most.)

Herbert_ResnicowThe works of Herbert Resnicow have recently become available to me — okay, I opened a dusty box in “Noah’s Archives” and there they were, held firmly in place beneath the weighty output of Ruth Rendell. As is my habit, I picked one up to flip through in order to remind myself of his work, and eight books later, I thought I’d make some notes. 😉

I mention my personal process only to indicate why I’ve chosen to go against my habit. Generally when I look at an

9780380692781-usauthor, I choose a single book and examine it in depth as a way of talking about a broader view; the author’s themes or preoccupations as exemplified within the pages of one of his/her works. In the case of Resnicow, I found not that much that can be examined in depth and so I thought I’d look at everything at once to see if there was anything of interest that could be teased out with a wider viewpoint.

Resnicow’s oeuvre

Herbert Resnicow’s publication history began in 1983 with The
9780380699230-usGold Solution
, which was a finalist for the Edgar for Best First Novel. There were four more novels in five years in the Gold series, about the adventures of a middle-aged Jewish married couple who trade barbed insults and solve crimes, rather after the model of Mr. and Mrs. North, Nick and Nora Charles, and a host of other married sleuths.

In 1985, he began a second series about a male attorney and his romantic partner, a female university dean, against a background of crossword puzzles and having crossword blanks as part of the story, to be filled in by the reader so as to provide clues to the mystery for the perspicacious.  There were five of these in two years, with the collaboration of well-known crossword compiler Henry Hook (who here has exceeded even his usual brilliance in many instances by constructing puzzles that meet the needs of the plot).

UnknownIn 1987 and 1990, Resnicow published two novels about Ed Baer and his son Warren, a financier and a philosopher respectively. The first of these was The Dead Room and I’ll suggest it’s one of his best known books: it’s the one that appears on lists of locked-room mysteries including the relevant Wikipedia article.

In the latter part of his brief career, he published five novels with famous co-authors: two with Edward Koch, and one each with Fran Tarkenton, Tom Seaver, and Pelé. I must confess I haven’t seen these in a long time and would have been unlikely to re-read them; the celebrity names are uppermost in large type and Resnicow’s name is presented as “with”. I’m not sure it’s fair to call this “ghost-writing” if your name is actually on the book; a writer friend of mine once referred to this as “withing” and that word suits me just fine. Resnicow was a “wither” for celebrity mysteries and there are five of them.

Gold-CurseWhat you’ll find in his work

As I said, I flipped through a bunch of these in a short time, although I’ve certainly read all these volumes and more previously. I re-read all five crossword mysteries and the first two Gold volumes, and The Dead Room. My archives appear not to contain a copy of the second Baer novel, The Hot Place, and I think I shall have to remedy that; I remember it as being quite readable.

The Gold novels set the tone for much of Resnicow’s remaining work. Alexander Gold and his wife Norma are introduced to a mystery that involves some sort of impossible situation. There is a motivation supplied for the Golds to solve the mystery, either financial or in order to save someone from being unjustly convicted of the crime. And the circumstances of the crime are … well, “impossible” is perhaps more precise than I can be in these circumstances. Let’s say it usually seems as though no one could have reasonably committed the crime and then the experienced Golden Age reader will know what’s coming.

md1077001541I don’t think the “impossible crime” puzzles at the centre of these novels are as clever as others do. I have to say, though, that the critical faculties which my fellow bloggers bring to the defence of Resnicow’s abilities are sufficiently significant that I can’t ignore them, and honestly I feel a little guilty for not liking these as much as my peers. Smart and insightful people think these puzzles are clever, and all I can respond is, “didn’t seem that way to me”. I suspect my faculties have been dulled over the years by overexposure to the particular brand of cleverness that produced these plots … or perhaps I’m just not smart enough to see what others see. For a really detailed look at Resnicow’s career from someone who esteems him more highly than I do, I recommend my blogfriend TomCat’s 2011 opinion at Beneath the Stains of Time.

9780345322821-usIn the background of each Gold novel is some consideration having to do with the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Gold. Mr. and Mrs. Gold are nice. Indeed, they are what one would call “good people”; they care about each other and trade barbs and witticisms with the ease of a long relationship with strong bonds of affection (but it’s clear that either would die for the other). They take care of each other, help their friends, and are valuable and productive members of society.

And that’s kind of a problem for me. In modern genre studies there’s a concept that has arisen from the bottom up (rather than as the product of, say, academic thought that gets translated down-market to mere fans ;-)); the Mary Sue. This is seen as a common cliché of wish-fulfillment in fan fiction; an “idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ensign Mary Sue, age 16, single-handedly saves the Enterprise with a bobby pin and starts dating Captain Kirk, etc. And it’s linked to the slightly more academic concept of self-insertion, whereby “a fictional character who is the real author of a work of fiction appears as an idealized character within that fiction, either overtly or in disguise.” The author writes him/herself in as the star of their own story; in academic terms, the character is the raisonneur. Here it seems quite clear to me that Mr. Gold is based on Resnicow himself, as is the male protagonist of the crossword novels. If you read the biographical details in TomCat’s piece linked above, I think you will be even more convinced that this is probable.

9780345327321-usI’m not saying that Resnicow does this in any way objectionably; in fact, it’s quite cute and naive. However, I think it is commonly understood that novels based on a Mary Sue protagonist are usually quite boring, and that’s certainly something to consider here. If the impossible crime is the A plot, then the B plot is — well, it’s not much of a plot of all, it’s mostly characterization. The Golds and their best friends are charming and delightful, but nothing really bad ever happens to them, and not much happens to change them or their personalities. They don’t grow, and this is a characteristic of Mary Sues. Now, fans of Nero Wolfe like myself can stand the idea of a B plot about personalities who don’t change much. But unless you are a writer of the quality of Rex Stout, the B plot tends to fade away, and that’s what I find happens here. I remember the A plots quite clearly after 20+ years, but all but the simplest recollection of the Golds’ personalities had gone.

the-dead-room1The two novels about a father-and-son amateur detective team where the father is a businessman and the son a philosopher seem to me to be Resnicow’s best work; at least, The Dead Room has considerable critical acclaim. I certainly liked it, partly because there is some tension between the protagonists. The story is very strong and is an impossible crime mystery, although with a modern twist; it takes place in an anechoic chamber at the headquarters of a stereo manufacturer. I have to say, though, that I solved this one without thinking very hard about it, which frankly surprised me. I’m not very good at solving these plots, even though I’m very interested in how they’re constructed; when I get one first crack out of the box, it’s a signal to me that either I have a bent for this kind of story or it’s not well done.

md1077051789I actually liked the solution of The Gold Deadline the best of all, and here TomCat and I are in agreement, it seems. The book itself has tinges of homophobia (although to be clear it’s actually biphobia about the unpleasant victim), but the central premise is an ass-kicker. The victim is alone in a theatre box during a performance, under observation and someone is guarding the only door to the box. How the crime is committed will doubtless surprise you but it’s really clever, a contrivance at the level of a Death of Jezebel or The Chinese Orange Mystery. 

The five Gold novels and the two about the father-and-son team, the Baers, are the best of the lot; the other nine are distinctly minor.

3185460The five crossword novels feature a couple similar to the Golds, except that one is the world’s most esteemed crossword composer unknown to anyone. They have a number of good things about them, principal among which is four or five original puzzles per book created by the late great Henry Hook. I’ve read plenty of other crossword mysteries and I have to say these might just be the best crosswords ever found in a mystery. They are integral to the plot — you really should solve them as you move through the book in order to understand what’s going on. They are difficult but not impossible to solve, at the level of a New York Times Sunday puzzle. And in at least one instance Hook created a new kind of puzzle which he gives many names; I’ll call them Crossonics, because the sounds of the words are important to the context of the novel.

Unknown-1The most successful of the five to me is the entry about a group of cruciverbalists who are the stars of a New York crossword club, Murder Across and Down. This is the only one where the addition of crosswords actually makes sense to the plot and the crosswords’ solutions have a bearing on the solution. Other than that, there are various specious excuses under which Resnicow assembles precisely six suspects (why six, I wonder? Ellery Queen got by with three) and has them solve and/or create puzzles. Other plots range from far-fetched (six heirs to a cruciverbalist’s will, six candidates for a plum job) to the absolutely ridiculous (a nonsensical Russian spy plot that involves coded messages in the daily crossword puzzle of a newspaper). This last one reminds me of an equally preposterous bridge spy/mystery novel by Don Von Elsner in which codes are transmitted via the bridge column … just not a very good idea.

Murder_City_HallThe worst thing about these is that really they are not mysteries that are solved, per se. I believe all five share the common thread that the murderer is induced to reveal his/her guilt by the process of solving or setting a crossword. Sure, there are clues to guilt that are noted after the fact, but … what it all boils down to is the old “set a trap and the murderer falls into it”. Not plotting for the connoisseur. I have to say that the characterization is well-done throughout these novels; Resnicow does an excellent job of helping us keep the six suspects distinct each from the other.  The Crossword Hunt is particularly good, where Resnicow lets us see six job candidates and then at the end reveals why five of them shouldn’t have gotten the job — for reasons we’ve seen, but may not have thought about. The author shows an excellent grasp of psychology here. But ultimately these five suffer from the same problem as all “crossword mysteries”; it’s nearly impossible to make crosswords a necessary part of the plot of a mystery without structuring the book with impossibilities.

9780688067168-usAnd as for the five withed novels, the less said about those the better.  I did read these on their first publication and they are … competent examples of commercial writing. It’s hard to say if his collaborators contributed anything at all to the novels except their names and a couple of “shooting the shit” sessions to provide background; I rather think not. It’s just that, as Phoebe Atwood Taylor found with Murder at the New York World’s Fair, when half the book has to be there for reasons which have nothing to do with the mystery, and you really need the money for the book, the mystery suffers. The two books with Ed Koch I recall to be particularly egregious; they are determined to present Koch in the best possible light regardless of how much it strains credulity. If the authors had dared to tell the truth about Koch’s everyday life and political manoeuvrings, they would have been much more interesting and less “safe”, and a lot more readable. As they are, they’re what booksellers think of as instant remainders. (Apparently Resnicow died before he did much with the second Koch title beyond an outline, but he gets credit.)

PeleIf you do decide to try Resnicow’s work, I suggest the Gold novels and the two Baer novels, of course, but probably The Dead Room and The Gold Deadline will be sufficient to give you the highlights.

To the best of my knowledge, most of these books are unavailable in electronic editions. You can see that the crosswords would be tough to make available; all five of the Gold novels are available from Kindle Unlimited but I don’t see any evidence of the Baer novels or the “with” novels having made the E-transition. The Dead Room I used to see everywhere as a used paperback, but here in Canada it was issued by Worldwide Library, a prolific subsidiary of Harlequin. Amazon or ABE should get you any of the others you need, though.

Cover art through the ages: The Red Box (1937), by Rex Stout

case-of-red-box-nero-wolfeThe 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.

 

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