Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Rex Stout and the case of the non-series sleuths



The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a looseTNC Rex Stout group of crime fiction fans choosing a new author to write about each month – Rex Stout is our January centre of attraction. New and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece.

The Stout blogposts are collected at Noah Stewart’s blog – here are last week’s links.

This week I am going to look at two Stout books which do NOT feature Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I didn’t intend to do this, but I was fascinated both by the character of Dol Bonner, and about the fact – which Lynn Mally told me in the comments of one of my pieces – that Stout’s wife was a noted designed of fashion fabrics. Presumably Pola Stout gave him the background to Red Threads.

So that’s the end of Stout month, but I will also ask readers to pick one of the Wolfe books in front of me, and I will read one more even though the Tuesday Night Club is moving on (to Dorothy L Sayers). See below.

 
The Hand in the Glove by Rex Stout
published 1937

 
hand in the glove


When Dol Bonner, at 6 o’clock that Saturday afternoon, steered her coupe (one of the assets of Bonner & Raffray, Inc, soon to be dissolved) up the winding drive and onto the gravelled space beyond the shrubbery bordering the terrace, she was surprised to hear sounds of activity from the direction of the tennis court… [She] set off along the path. She still wore the tan woollen dress, with a loose red jacket and a little brown hat which might or might not have seemed familiar to a Tyrolese.
 
 
commentary: Dol Bonner is something of a collection of characteristics. She is very anti-men (because of a bad experience), she is as good as any man, she has caramel-coloured eyes (we are told often) and she has no money,and is proud and independent. So we’re not in any doubt she’s our heroine.

I thought the opening chapters of this book were spectacularly, amateurishly, bad: names are thrown around, events are discussed, it’s impossible to work out who is who or what is going on. It felt like an attempt to push the reader into the middle of things, but it didn’t work for me. But then Dol goes off a country house to investigate, and everything got a lot better. There is a quite splendid Indian mystic who has the women of the house in thrall– this was very cleverly done, because not just aimed at making anyone look like a fake or an idiot. It was the source of endless very funny lines - ‘Do you think to entrap Siva with a pair of gloves?’ & ‘I am no longer in the sphere that holds you.’ The book also contains a truly splendid serious and practical marriage proposal, perhaps the most unromantic one every committed to paper.

About the gloves mentioned above: In Sunday’s blogpost I reminisced about a discussion on whether a gun could be hidden in a stocking top. In this book, there is a vital pair of gloves, which have been damaged when the murderer uses them to string up his victim. They are objects of some disgust. But Dol hides them in her stocking-tops, which seems a) repellent and b) impossible – they are obviously heavy, substantial horsehide gauntlets.

Anyway, it was an enjoyable read when it got going. I had no trouble guessing the murderer, but discovering the motive provided a very tense closing. And I was fascinated to find that Theodolinda is not a made-up name: she was Queen of the Lombards in the 6th and 7th centuries.

I believe Dol Bonner turns up in some other books – I’ll rely on my fellow-fans to say which.


Red Threads by Rex Stout

published 1941
 
 
Red Threads
 

[A fashion show in the garden of a country estate] ….In front of the main group two professionally lovely models, wearing tailored woollen dresses, paraded and smiled; and as they disappeared into a gaily coloured tent, two others emerged….

 
commentary: This one combines two very strange setups: half of it deals with a fabric fashion house (as I explain above, probably from conjugal experience), while the crime has been committed in an extraordinary Native American Taj Mahal. A very rich man built a temple/mausoleum for his dead wife, and has been murdered there. The whole Native American thing (as Stout does not call it) is very difficult to read for modern sensibilities, though it’s clear the author is trying to show respect for and interest in the culture.

I loved the weird setting, and very much enjoyed the fashion/fabric aspects – the dead man had the eponymous red threads in his hand, and the story and history of the relevant fabric is fascinating. I liked that there was a lot of detail about how much clothes cost, and how much people were paid.

But in the end I think I just missed Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin too much. The crime is investigated by Inspector Cramer, a regular in the Wolfe books, and I kept thinking that this great setup was wasted in not having the brownstone inhabitants dealing with it.

Top picture is a fashion advert. Lower picture shows a fashion show at the New York Worlds Fair around 1940, from the NYPL.
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Now, a final request for advice. I have copies of these Rex Stout books:

Before Midnight
The Golden Spiders
Too Many Cooks
Over My Dead Body
Fer de Lance

--- which one would readers advise me to read next? Thanks for all tips and suggestions (even though I know half of you will say ‘none of them – go and buy X or Y’).



































16 comments:

  1. I like the Rex Stouts that feature Wolfe and Goodwin, too, Moira. The interactions between them, and the things each brings to the stories, just add so much to Stout's work. And yet, these also have some interesting aspects, too, not the least of which is Stout's wit.

    As to what to read next? Fer de Lance was the first Wolfe/Goodwin outing, so if you want to sort of go in order, that would be where to begin. But a lot of people say The Golden Spiders is one of Stout's best. I like Too Many Cooks, although it does have Wolfe travel, so it misses the brownstone and Brenner.

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    1. Well that narrows it down to three! Thanks Margot, that's helpful. I can see I will end up reading all the ones I own, and then beginning to obtain others...

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  2. The very thought of a Rex Stout book without the orchid-loving, agoraphobic, good-food loving, brilliant detective is enough to make me break out in hives. In the alternative, I"ll go rummaging through my Wolfe/Goodwin collection and find one to reread.

    The very idea!

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    1. I did want to read these two, for the reasons I outlined above, but they just persuaded me that Wolfe and Goodwin are the best thing about the books. Tell me which one you choose...

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    1. Thank YOU for the tipoff, it was so interesting to read about his wife.

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  4. I wanted to like Red Threads because I really do like Cramer, but you are right, it is a disappointment.

    One of the novellas I read for my post this week is set in the fashion world and I am sure Stout got his info from his wife, as you note here.

    I have reviewed (or at least done a post on) three of those in your list at my blog: Fer-de-Lance is my favorite overall but it gets lots of criticism from fans and non-fans for some reason; The Golden Spiders; and Too Many Cooks which I did this month. All of those are very good. I like Over My Dead Body because it gets personal to Wolfe. But I like them all.

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    1. So perhaps I should start with the first book, that makes sense. I was going to check over to your blog for ideas anyway...

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  5. Fer-de-Lance, the first book is good in that it sets the tone for the series, but it develops over the years, as does the humor.

    I think my favorite is The Doorbell Rang,although any that make me laugh are good.

    Also, the TV series is wonderful with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton. Chaykin is no David Suchet playing Poirot, but he is very good and funny.

    The series is fast-paced and has art-deco decor in Wolfe's house, and 1930s-1940s swing music.

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    1. I have never seen the TV series - I wonder if it was shown in the UK.
      It sounds as though I should definitely start on Fer de Lance as it is the 1st book AND has recommendations.

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  6. Queen to Stout to Sayers....nope not read her either!

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    1. No - I think Queen and Stout were our best shots at drawing you in, but the moment has passed.

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  7. Not to try Rex Stout is like missing a fantastic dessert on a menu, like going without chocolate. It's a no-effort virtual vacation of just enjoyment. As I said earlier, with tea and biscuits or another treat, just to curl up with Wolfe, Goodwin and the other detectives and denizens of Wolfe's brownstone is to relax and smile and just enjoy.

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    1. Absolutely! Now you just have to convince Col. I'm working on him...

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  8. What can hurt to try one book, a good one? From the library so it's even free.

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