We continue our review of Rex Stout's non-Nero Wolfe mysteries with 1939's Red Threads.
Red Threads is often presented as an Inspector Cramer mystery: A case where Inspector Cramer is the star and solves the case without any aide from Nero Wolfe. It’s understandable to do that, but lets be clear Inspector Cramer is not the star of this book.
Millionaire Val Carew is founded murdered in tomb of his late wife who was an Indian princess. Carew, who was considering remarrying a white woman, was found scalped.
Jean Farris is in love with the dead man’s son, Guy but becomes angry when he asks her to return a skirt jacket she’d made with rare genuine bayetta thread that Guy had given her from his own jacket. Farris storms off from after this odd request and is then knocked out and wakes up in her underwear with the skirt and jacket gone. She then discovers the reason for the interest in the thread: the murdered man had a thread of bayetta in his hand.
Jean resolves who robbed her and who committed the murder and clear her beloved. It is Jean, not Inspector Cramer who is the heroine of the story and focal point of the story. She makes for a charming and intelligent amateur detective who dominates the narrative and lifts the whole work. Cramer is merely John Law. Stout saw no reason to work up another New York City Police Inspector when he’d created a perfectly servicable one for Nero Wolfe.
Inspector Cramer is not an entirely unsympathetic character in the story. Cramer is an honest cop, even if his methods are not necessarily laudable. Forced to return from his first real vacation in years, Cramer takes to the case with bulldog determination and shows a certain cunning in catching a suspect even if it turns out to be the wrong suspect. And once Jean sets him on the right track, he ties everything up neatly.
I can’t really blame Cramer for missing the solution to this case. At least five people including Jean withheld evidence from him and only one of them was in on the murder. Kind of hard to get the right conclusion without the right information.
The book’s portrayal of Native Americans was a subject of some concern, indeed the whole foreword to the book was consumed with a critique of this aspect of the book. Woodrow Wilson, the only full-blonded Indian in the story talks like he’s ready to appear in a Republic Western or take up duty outside of a Cigar Store. Stout would treat a Native American character by the same name with far more sophistication and respect thirty years later in Death of a Dude. To me, it was only a minor distraction because the character’s part is relatively minor.
The final chapter is a bit silly and overdone, but overall the Jean Farris character carried the story through with a little help from Inspector Cramer making Red Threads an enjoyable 1930s mystery even without Nero Wolfe.
Rating: 3.25 out of 5.0