The great thing about reading Nero Wolfe novels is you never quite know what to expect. The Nero Wolfe stories are a blend of hard-boiled stories as well as the genius/gentleman detective stories. The exact composition of the blend varies from book to book.
The Rubber Band is definitely closer to the cozy side of mysteries rather than the hardboiled detective story. Published in 1936, it was the the third of the Nero Wolfe novels and came on the heels of much darker stories in Fer-de-lance and The League of Frightened Men.
The book begins with a corporate executive trying to engage Wolfe to investigate a theft of $30,000 in Cash. The person who has been fingered for the theft by the company’s vice-president is the beautiful Miss Clara Fox.
However, Miss Fox also wants to engage Wolfe to help her claim money owed to her father and his partner. An English nobleman in America in the Old West faced hanging by vigilantes. A band of men led by a Mr. Rubber Coleman formed “the Rubber Band” which helped the nobleman escape the vigilantes in exchange for 1/2 of his fortune. Clara recognizes the nobleman who is now quite wealth, and she calls for all of her father’s partners (except for Mr. Coleman who she can’t find) and their heirs to claim their share of the fortune from the nobleman who is now staying in New York. She offers Wolfe a cut to help her collect.
One of her father’s partners is killed after leaving the Brownstone to meet someone and the police want to question Clara Fox. Wolfe is determined to protect his client and hides her from the police.
This features the first appearance of Lieutenant Rowcliff, everyone’s least favorite police detective who gets a search warrant to find Ms. Fox, but Wolfe manages to foil him in a classic set up. This book is full of fantastic characters: A British lord, corporate robber-barons, and an old cowboy among others.
Fox is the first woman to successfully charm Wolfe in the series, with Wolfe even reading Hungarian poetry to her. By the standard of future stories, Wolfe’s reaction to her may be a bit bunch, but Stout was still getting a feel for the character when he wrote the Rubber Band.
The somewhat disappointing part of this story was Inspector Cramer. He was almost subserviant to Wolfe, and volunteered the fact that he liked Wolfe. Clearly, it would take a few more books for Cramer to develop into the hardnosed belligerant cop that we all know and love.
However, for all the early hiccups in the series, The Rubber Band remains an enjoyable and well-paced mystery. In some points, its reminiscent of Agatha Christie stories as well as The Sign of Four. The mystery works out to a clever and satisfying conclusion.
It’s a shame that this one wasn’t made into a film like the first two books were. Both Fer-de-Lance and League of Frightened Men seemed like much more unlikely adaptations with their very convoluted plots. This one would have made a perfect 1930s mystery movie with the right cast.
Rating: Very Satisfactory
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