Agatha Christie is highly regarded and remembered more than her individual characters because of the fact that her mysteries were not limited to a single famous detective unlike Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. She had not only Hercule Poirot, but Miss Marple is almost equally beloved. In addition, other characters such as Parker Pyne and Tommy and Tuppence are well-regarded by mystery fans.
Beyond Agatha Christie, many other mystery writers understood the importance of having more than one detective series going. The point was not lost on Rex Stout. With several Nero Wolfe novels under his belt, Stout tried to branch out with limited success. He wrote one novel featuring lady private eye Dol Bonner and another featuring lawyer Alphabet Hicks. And there were a couple others without a lead detective. None were particularly well-regarded.
One detective did get more than one book-Tecumseh Fox who appeared in three books published between 1939-41. In Tecumseh Fox, Stout had a lot of potential to write a series that departed from Wolfe but still was high quality. In the first book, Double for Death, we're introduced to Fox. He's part Native American, he's resourceful, intelligent, and unlike Wolfe or Bonner, he doesn't loath the opposite sex. He lives in Westchester County in a country place where he plays host to a variety of eccentrics. He's not alone in his detective work with an organization behind him including officers in his organization such as a vice-president.
The series had potential to provide another Stoutian detective, with his own unique characterization and background. The setting of his country home seemed to offer rich opportunities to flesh out interesting characters. Sadly, it was not to be.
In Double for Death, like in Dol Bonner's sole novel, the novel started strong but the life was sucked out of the story by interminable pages of bland questioning of suspects by the official police at a setting that was completely boring. When finally, the murderer was revealed, there was more relief that the affair was over than impression with the intelligence of the solution.
In the next two novels, Stout would ditch most of the distinctive characteristics as Fox would work in New York City away from home and away from any compatriots or Lieutenants. This basically made him just another private detective. But that's not to say the novels didn't have features of interest.
Bad for Business may have been the best of the lot as Fox tries to discover who poisoned some candy and killed the owner of the candy company. Indeed, Stout would recycle much of the plot for the Nero Wolfe novella "Bitter End." The story like the one to follow it The Broken Vase was enjoyable but at the same point, maddening. Both books were good and could have been great if only...
The closest to greatness was when Bad for Business featured Fox trying to solve a case involving one of Dol Bonner's operatives. Fox and Bonner clashed twice and the story had a feeling of electricity in those moments, but Bonner disappears from the book and the opportunity for greatness passes. Yes, the series had potential but Stout couldn't bring it to fruition.
The series also exposed and emphasized Stout's weaknesses as an author. The Wolfe stories all were written from a first person perspective in the memorable voice of Archie Goodwin. It seems as if Stout tried to avoid the first person to prevent the book's narrator from sounding like Archie. What was used throughout the series was Omniscient narration at its worst: unfocused and uninteresting.
In addition to this, it becomes painfully clear from all of these non-Wolfe novels that Stout was incapable of writing about the romantic relationships in any way that's not farcical. His romantic angles are strained and his characters' love affairs are unrealistic and not in a way that appeals to readers.
In the Nero Wolfe book, Stout's genius is how he negates these deficiencies. Archie Goodwin adds not only flavor to the narrative but focus as well. In the two main protagonists, you have a womanhater and a man whose flirty and flip demeanor towards the opposite sex balances against Stout's weakness for romance. None of this helped out in the Fox books.
The last Tecumseh Fox book was published in 1941 and then came the War and Stout's war work limited his output to a precious few Nero Wolfe novellas. The war made people re-calibrate and consider what really mattered, and perhaps War did that for Stout as well. He'd missed writing Nero Wolfe during the war years and when he could, he got right back at it and continued to write Nero Wolfe stories and only Nero Wolfe stories for fiction for the next thirty years. His days of literary flirtation were over.
And readers can be thankful for it. The more time Stout wasted on failed mystery experiments, the less time he had to craft masterful stories like The Silent Speaker, The Golden Spiders, The Next Witness, and The Final Deduction.
If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.
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