Tag: Rex Stout

Book Review: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe

The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe is an anthology of parodies, pastiches, and a few other things that are hard to categorize, all inspired by Rex Stout’s greatest literary creation. I’m going to give a detailed look at everything in the book.

“Red Orchids” by French Author Thomas Narcejac finds Wolfe out from the Brownstone to investigate a case with the promise of a rare, red orchid. This translation by Narcejac does a fair job capturing the Wolfe-Archie relationship, but there’s too much emphasis on Wolfe firing Archie, which wasn’t nearly as much of a thing in the novels. It’s not a bad read at all.

Next, we get an excerpt from Marion Mainwaring’s book Murder by Pastiche. The book contains several pastiches of detective characters solving mysteries. Here we get a flavor for how the Wolfe pastiche works and the author does a great job capturing both Archie and Wolfe. It was well-written and made me want to read the whole book.

I should not like “Archie Hunters” as much as I do as it’s a bit ham-fisted. It involves a parody of Mike Hammer meeting up with Nero Wolfe. Writer Jon L. Breen states he was not a fan of Mike Hammer. This is hardly a necessary statement when he named the parody Mack Himmler. In addition, Breen (through Wolfe) gives us the moral of the story. I think makes it work is the degree to which Mr. Breen commits to it. While he’s having Wolfe make a broadly political (not partisan) point, it’s so in keeping with Wolfe’s voice and something I could actually imagine Wolfe saying.

“The Frightened Man” is a pastiche that uses different character names but is inspired by Wolfe. It’s a solid entry, though a bit short for my tastes.

As to the first Chapter of Murder in E Minor by Robert Goldsborough, I’ve had my issues with Goldsborough’s Wolfe books, but this is the one is good. It does a solid job capturing the feel of Stout’s work. The first chapter is well-written and I wouldn’t mind reading the book again.

“The Purloined Platypus” finds Wolfe and Archie solving the mystery of a museum theft in the present day. It’s a good story, but the mystery is more okay, and the author is fine but not brilliant at capturing the voices and transferring the main characters to the 21st Century. However, I’m a bit prejudiced as its hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of Archie taking pictures with his phone and finding information on the Internet.

“The House on 35th Street” and “The Sidekick Case” are two of the parodies that were run by the Saturday Review. Both are short, but I think this is a case where brevity is the soul of wit. “The House on 35th Street” pokes fun at the conventions of Stout novels, while “The Sidekick Paper” takes on bad word usage in a way that you could believe Wolfe actually would.

“The Case of the Disposable Jalopy” is a parody with Wolfe and Archie in a futuristic world where both have aged (contrary to Stout’s general practice.) Archie no longer has his photographic memory and Wolfe’s mental powers have gone downhill. In addition, due to automation, most jobs have been eliminated with people living on a negative income tax and Fritz forced to buy lower class food on a budget. This is very much a sort of a Saturday Night Live sort of take on Nero Wolfe (from when Saturday Night Live was actually funny) and it’s a solid piece of humor. It’s committed to its premise, and the humor is far more hit than miss, although one of the jokes feels a bit tasteless. Overall, it’s a fairly solid parody.

 “As Dark as Christmas Gets” finds a Nero Wolfe fan who believes Nero Wolfe is real and hopes to gain his favor. Leo Haig is brought in to solve the mystery of a Cornell Woolrich manuscript that disappeared at the Christmas Party. This was a good story with some intelligent dialogue and fairly drawn characters. Haig’s Archie Goodwin character Chip is more vulgar than Archie, but not so much it got in my way of enjoying this short.

Next up is, “Who’s Afraid of Nero Wolfe” and the lead detective Claudius Lyon is the answer to the question. Lyon, like Haig, believes Wolfe is real, but is afraid of getting sued by him, so his detective work is strictly amateur which also avoids the requirement of a license. This is a fun story about a search for a missing poetry contest winner from several years back. It revolves around word play and as far as a mystery goes, it works. I enjoyed all the little twists that Loren Estleman took on the Nero Wolfe world, starting with Lyon being located in Flatbush.

In “Julius Katz and the Case of the Exploding Wine” writer David Zeltserman takes a few of the ideas from the Wolfe story and adds a whole lot to it. Katz has an Archie, but Archie in this case is an AI in a tie clip that advises Katz who is a wine-drinking gambler with a fifth degree black belt. However, like Wolfe, Katz is lazy and needs prodded to go to work. I enjoyed this and all of the twists and turns. There were characters who had very definitive counterparts in the Wolfe stories (ex: Detective Cramer), but others you have to guess at.

“The Possibly Last Case of Tiberius Dingo” is an original short story for this collection that finds a Wolfe-like detective in a state of semi-retirement but tempted to take on one final case. The writer isn’t as immersed in the Wolfe canon as other contributors and it shows but not too much. The story is still an entertaining read with some clever twists. I found the ending uncomfortable, but other than that, this was fine.

The book has a section entitled potpourri, which is a bunch of miscellaneous bits and bobs about Wolfe.

“The Woman Who Read Nero Wolfe” is a delightful short about an intelligent 500 pound circus woman who takes to reading Nero Wolfe and then has to solve the murder of a young woman she’d taken under her wing. Pithy, fun, and has a superb twist. 

“Sam Buried Caesar” is from a series of short stories about a police inspector who named his children after famous detectives. This is the story of ten-year-old Nero Wolfe and the detective agency he founded with his friend and assistant Artie. This originally appeared in Ellery Queen Magazine and a story like this poses a unique challenge because it’s got to be true to being a story about kids, without boring the adults. This story nails it and was just a lot of fun to read.

The book includes Chapter 24 from Rasputin’s Revenge. Writer John Lescroat posited that Nero Wolfe was the illegitimate son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler and born under the name Auguste Lupa. This chapter appears to be from the end of the mystery where Holmes, Watson, and Lupa are talking. This is fine and features interesting interactions. 

Joseph Goodrich adapted a couple of Nero Wolfe stories to the stage and the first scene of Might as Well Be Dead is included. This is probably as close to seeing the play as most of us are going to get as these haven’t been widely distributed or performed. The play appears to have some good ideas like having Archie as an on the on-stage narrator and really seems to condense the initial client interview from the book so the action can get moving. Other choices I’m less sure of, but they might make sense in the context of the full play. Its hard to evaluate it based on one scene.

The final short story by Robert Lopestri is amusing tale of two grandparents telling their granddaughter what it was like to live next to Nero Wolfe and why they eventually decided to move away. It’s an amusing and clever take.

While I have criticisms of many pieces in this book, I liked them all. If you’re a Wolfe fan, this book is for you. Taken together, the book is a fantastic tribute to Nero Wolfe and shows a bit of how Rex Stout’s work has been inspiring authors with the amazing characters and world he created.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

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Rex Stout’s Other Detective Series: Tecumseh Fox

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.

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Book Review: Red Threads

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