Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Non-Wolfe Mystery Novels by Rex Stout

The Tuesday Night Bloggers is a group of crime fiction fans who choose an author every month to focus on. This month the author is Rex Stout and I am looking at Stout's mysteries that don't feature Nero Wolfe.

The first Nero Wolfe novel was published by Rex Stout in 1934. Between that time and 1940, he published seven more Nero Wolfe novels. At the same time he was also writing and publishing mystery novels featuring other protagonists.

Between 1937 and 1941 Rex Stout published three mysteries featuring Tecumseh Fox, and one each about Alphabet Hicks, Theodolinda "Dol" Bonner, and Inspector Cramer. In addition there was The Mountain Cat Murders, which does feature the investigation of a murder, but doesn't really star any detective, and The President Vanishes, which is a political thriller. I have read all of these, but for most of them it was a good while ago.

Tecumseh Fox series

The first Tecumseh Fox mystery was Double for Death, published in 1939. Fox is a detective who is wealthy enough to own an estate in Westchester County and provide food and lodging to many odd, non-paying guests. I reviewed that book in 2014. My take on that book:
I would not rate this mystery anywhere near the quality of the Nero Wolfe stories, but I still found it entertaining. There were clues to the identity of the murder, but they were hidden enough to fool me. Stout considered the plot of Double for Death to be one of his best. Comparing it to other Golden Age mysteries, I think it holds up well. Stout's characters are often eccentric or wacky, but that is not unusual for mysteries of that time.
This first novel in the brief series was followed by Bad for Business in 1940 and The Broken Vase in 1941.

Alphabet Hicks or The Sound of Murder

In 1941, Stout introduced another detective, Alphabet Hicks, a young disbarred lawyer, very eccentric. The novel was originally titled Alphabet Hicks, and later published under the title, The Sound of Murder. He is called Alphabet because he gives out business  cards with a string of letters as his title. Such as: C.F.M.O.B, which stands for Candidate For Mayor Of Babylon; or L.O.P.V.S.S.A.F. which stands for Lover Of Peace Unless Someone Starts A Fight.

Hicks lives quite differently from Tecumseh Fox. He supports himself as a cabbie and occasionally as a detective, when he is interested in the case or really in need of money. He is hired by Judith Dundee, whose husband has accused her of stealing secrets from his business and providing them to a competitor. With the $200 he gets from his new client to begin working on her case, Hicks buys a new suit of clothes, a pocketknife, a box of chocolates, some photographs of movie stars, and donates $100 to British War Relief.

An excerpt from the book:
At seven o'clock that evening Hicks was eating spaghetti and arguing about Mussolini at the family table in an Italian restaurant on East 29th Street. At nine o'clock the table was cleared and a pinochle game was started. At midnight Hicks went upstairs to the furnished room for which he paid six dollars a week. 
In yellow pajamas piped in brown, he sat on the edge of the bed and opened the box of chocolates and smelled it with a long deep inhalation. 
“I'll earn it and then I'll eat it,” he muttered. If he had known how much of a chore the earning was to be, he might have added, “If I'm still alive.”
The plot is fairly complex; the proof of Judith Dundee's deception is a voice recording of her conversation with the competitor; it is on an indestructible disc used in a hidden listening device. Hicks follows a lead to Dundee's lab in Westchester County, a murder occurs shortly after he arrives, and the investigation gets much more serious.

This book has a romantic subplot. I think most of the non-Wolfe books included this element and I don't find it objectionable. Some of the earlier Nero Wolfe novels and novellas also have romances, not central to the mystery plot.

I prefer Alphabet Hicks as a detective over Tecumseh Fox; neither, of course, come anywhere close to matching Nero Wolfe or Archie. Hicks solves the crime due to a lot of luck and coincidences, but that is in keeping with a lot of Golden Age mysteries, and I don't have a problem with that as long as the writing entertains.

See these two reviews:

Yvette's review at In So Many Words
John's review at Pretty Sinister Books

The Mountain Cat Murders

This mystery novel is unusual because it really doesn't feature an investigator. Sure, the police are investigating, but one way or the other they are beholden to powerful men in the area or in the state, and they are not so much looking for the truth as for a solution that meets their needs. Regardless, of the three non-Wolfe mysteries by Stout that I have read recently, this one is my favorite. More interesting, and a look at a different part of the country.

Delia Brand is a young woman living in Cody, Wyoming. There has been a lot of tragedy in her life; her father, who managed the prospectors for a grubstaking business, was killed two years ago and just recently, her mother committed suicide. She has decided that she will kill a man, and she announces this in a sporting goods store when she buys some cartridges for her gun. Very shortly, Dan Jackson turns up dead. Delia is discovered standing by his dead body holding her gun. Jackson is the man running the company her father worked for, he had just fired her sister from her job at the company, and Delia had an argument with him earlier in the day. However, she says she did not murder him and he was not the man she wanted to murder in the first place.

It gets even more convoluted from that point on. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence to convict her, including a note found in her purse asking her lawyer about killing a man. Tyler Dillon, her lawyer and an old classmate who is in love with her, wants to find any evidence he can to clear her, but he doesn't go about it very methodically.

I liked this story for its strong (yet misguided) heroine. There were other strong female characters who were taking charge of their own lives. Complicating things are the tangle of family relationships and friends and business relationships. The local and state government corruption add some interest.

Overall, it seems like the non-Wolfe novels of Rex Stout are less entertaining because the story is not told in first person and the lack of the witty dialogue that we see in the Wolfe series. However, they do benefit from being the type of mystery where the reader knows just about as much as the investigator. In the Wolfe novels, some facts are often withheld from the reader.

An interesting tidbit: Rex Stout really likes yellow pajamas. Among Rex Stout fans, Wolfe is famous for his yellow silk pajamas. Note the extract above from Alphabet Hicks; he wears "yellow pajamas piped in brown." And there are two women wearing yellow pajamas in The Mountain Cat Murders.

Delia Brand:
Of all the people involved and active in the affair one way or another—relatives, friends, associates, officials, photographers, politicians, reporters—the only one who was in a state of indifference at ten o'clock Wednesday morning was the girl herself. She was sound asleep on a cot in a cell of the county jail, lying on a clean white sheet, with no cover, clad in soft, clean, yellow pajamas which her sister Clara had brought to the jail, along with other accessories, shortly after dawn. Seated on a chair in the corridor outside the cell door was Daisy Welch, wife of the deputy warden, slowly fanning herself with a palm leaf and from time to time sighing heavily. It was a self-imposed vigil.
and Wynne Cowles, the "Mountain Cat":
Under an awning on the tiled veranda at Broken Circle Ranch, Wynne Cowles, in yellow silk lounging pajamas, reclined on a portable chaise lounge with chromium frame and pneumatic tires.

The two covers I have for The Mountain Cat Murders are similar. The Dell 5849 cover is by Victor Kalin.  The Dell D252 cover is by Chicago illustrator Al Brule, also well known for his pin-up art.


Bill Selnes said...

TracyK: I think you would be fascinated by McAleer's biography of Stout. He was an extraordinary man.

TracyK said...

Bill, I have that book and have read it. A couple of decades ago I read it and read the Nero Wolfe books in the order they were written at the same time. I should read it again. Just recently I was flipping through the biography, and read about his sister, Ruth Stout, who wrote books about gardening. At the time I read the biography, I had not heard of her, but since then I got into gardening and compost and I had read a lot about her. I agree, Rex Stout was an interesting man who accomplished a lot.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tracy, for the reminder that Stout's work and influence go well beyond the Nero Wolfe stories. Many people don't know just how prolific and quick-thinking he was.

TracyK said...

I had forgotten, Margot, that Rex Stout wrote eight non-wolfe mysteries in a four year period. Then after that he stuck to Nero Wolfe.

Clothes In Books said...

Gosh he was productive wasn't he? The Wolfe series would be a lot for most people to have written. I think I might try to read the Dol Bonner book Hand in Glove for this blog meme. It's so nice to have you with us Tracy.

TracyK said...

I would like to read the Dol Bonner book and The President Vanishes again this year. But I also want to read some of the Wolfe series where Lily Rowan is prominent, so those I will probably get to first. I will be interested in your take on The Hand in the Glove; I have seen widely varying opinions.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Tracy, I like reading non-series books and these non-Nero Wolfe novels look interesting, in terms of characters, plots, and even the titles.

TracyK said...

They are interesting, Prashant. The plots are a bit more convoluted than the Nero Wolfe novels, but I was able to keep the characters straight.

col2910 said...

I think I'll stick with my one or two Nero books.

TracyK said...

The Nero Wolfe is definitely the best for you to try, Col.