Sunday, 21 February 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Fer de Lance by Rex Stout



published 1933

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES



Fer de Lance


[Archie Goodwin is questioning a young woman who may have vital information. She is talking about a letter she received]

‘I went downstairs where I sleep and opened it.’

‘What did it say?’

She looked at me a moment without replying, and then suddenly she smiled, a funny smile that made me feel queer so that it wasn’t easy to look at her. But I kept my eyes on hers. Then she said: ‘I’ll show you what was in it, Mr Archie,’ and reached down and pulled her skirt up above her knee, shoved her hand down inside of her stocking, and brought it out again with something in it. I stared as she unrolled five $20 bills and spread them out for me to see…

[Later, Nero Wolfe talks to her]

‘… You still have the money?’

She nodded.

‘In your stocking?’

She pulled up her skirt and twisted her leg around and the bump was there.

Wolfe said: ‘Take it out.’ She unfastened the top of her stocking and reached inside and pulled out the twenties and unfolded them. Then she looked at me and smiled.


commentary: After we’d ‘done’ Rex Stout in the Tuesday Night Club, I asked his fans to recommend one more book of his to read. Of course my friends basically said ‘read all of them’ but Margot and Tracy  AND KATHY D* all recommended starting at the beginning, so I went for this one, the first Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin book.

* added later after shameful omission

And here come stocking tops again – in a previous Stout post I commented on Dol Bonner hiding murderous gauntlets in her stockings, and referred back to the controversial stocking-tops in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage. There should be some scientific research on what exactly a young woman can hide in her legwear.

Stout introduces his characters well, and there is some excellent detection as they start with a missing Italian workman, and then find out which minor news item he may be connected with. Archie races around interviewing witnesses and trying to find out what went on. Wolfe makes his deductions then offers them to the enforcement agencies in an odd manner – there is a lot of toing and froing on bets and rewards.

The young woman above is a maid-of-all-work in the rooming house where the missing Italian lived: she is a great addition to the story in an elusive way.

The final third of the book is unexpected in several ways. Wolfe stages a violent fake ambush to frighten someone into talking, which frankly seems a bit much. And it becomes clear who the murderer must be – and the final resolution works out in an unusual way.

The book certainly gave an excellent flavour of the 1930s, with its depression-hit NY residents, the rooming-house, then the world of golf and university presidents upstate (Wolfe has no idea how golf works), the light aeroplanes and small airfields.

When interviewing the golf caddies for their detailed recollections, Wolfe says this:
Mr Goodwin has heard two of your stereotypes; I fancy the other two are practically identical. A stereotype is something fixed, something that harbours no intention of changing. I don’t expect you boys to change your stories of what happened on that first tee….
---showing there’s been a real change in the meaning of the word ‘stereotype’.

I can well imagine that the arrival of this new book in 1935 must have been a big deal, even though the lucky readers wouldn’t have known how many books there would be, and that the series would last so many years.

















20 comments:

  1. Thanks for the kind mention, Moira. Interesting, isn't it, how stockings keep popping up in crime fiction. I think you have a point that there are parts of this that push the limits of credibility. But it does give, as you say, a good look at the 1930s. And it introduces this terrific partnership, too. Glad you enjoyed this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thanks Margot, and I'm glad I've started at the beginning with this series. And yes - stockings - if I wanted to do academic research I'd probably pick stockings in crime fiction as my topic.

      Delete
  2. Crime fiction lost something when we moved over to tights!
    I remember in one of Elizabeth Jane Howard's novels that a woman's suspender breaks and she uses a penny (old money) which she twists in her stocking top to hold it up. I tried it and it didn't work!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I remember reading something similar in a teenagers' books (what would now be YA) and not being able to make sense of it at all. See Lucy below....

      Delete
  3. You'd need a threepenny bit - right size to act as the button of the broken suspender. Just twisting it in the stocking wdn't work! We did this, or used aspirins. They work fine until they crumble. But to keep anything in your stocking top you'd need to be wearing garters (see pic). Otherwise the money/secret document would just work its way down to your ankle. Right, I'm off to Woods of Morecambe.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd never really thought that it had to be garters, but of course. And I'd never heard of Woods of Morecambe, but just looked it up ....

      Delete
  4. Taking part in this kind of discussion is what I love about blogging and my blog friends.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely, I totally agree with you. And I liked remembering what a threepenny bit looked like.

      Delete
  5. Ah, my favorite book ever by my favorite author. And the extract is from my favorite part of the book. A wonderful post. I love the character of Anna Fiore. I agree the fake ambush is strange but I loved the deduction in this book. When I finally realized that this was his first book in the series, I was so amazed that he had set it up all the characters so well, that it did not read like he was introducing a series, but like it could fit anywhere (at least within in the first ten or so books).

    And thanks for the mention.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's a very good point: I think if I'd read it without knowing I would never have guessed it was the first. And yes, Anna was lovely - I hope she got herself a good husband!

      Delete
  6. Weapons in stocking tops... don't recommend knives unless they're retractable. A gentleman friend accepted employment doing the night cash pickup for a grocery chain and decided it would be a good idea to start carrying a knife tucked into his boot (this was in Detroit about forty years ago. He'd have been better off with a sidearm).

    All went well until he dropped a deposit bag, squatted down to pick it up, and drove the knife into his ankle.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yikes, that sounds nasty! I love your comments, always so informative....

      Delete
  7. My knowledge of stockings is not extensive, but it does seem a rather difficult way to carry anything. I do like the book, but it is fascinating to read it after a clutch of Stout's later books. Both Nero and Archie are nearly fully formed, but not quite. Archie seems a little bit less sophisticated and slightly coarser than in later stories. It took two or three books for Stout to entirely nail them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was very impressed by how rounded they were already, but I do take your point, and probably if I read the subsequent ones immediately I would see the characters developing...

      Delete
  8. Another author I must try something by one day!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You definitely have to! Nothing in the tubs?

      Delete
    2. 2 - I reckon, 1 of which I only got in a charity shop before Christmas. He's not an author you see too often these days.

      Delete
    3. That's true, now I think about it - I've got quite a few, all bought 2nd hand years ago, but you really don't see them much anymore.

      Delete
  9. Since I also recommended Fer de Lance, I will say that it starts off the series nicely. It is also written well enough to entice readers to continue reading about Wolfe and Goodwin and their lives in the West Side brownstone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry, Kathy, don't know why I didn't mention you, I have put this right now - see above! I did really enjoy it.

      Delete