Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Rex Stout, The Rubber Band

Rex Stout, The Rubber Band
Original publication, 1936
© Estate of Rex Stout
Available as an ebook and from used booksellers

This is the third entry in the long-running saga (1934-1974) of Nero Wolfe and his assistant (and chronicler) Archie Goodwin.  The book opens with Goodwin reading a newspaper article about a English nobleman, the Marquis of Clivers, who is in the U.S. on a diplomatic mission.  Wolfe finds this annoying, and leaves for this afternoon session tending his orchids.  The following day, Archie notes that Wolfe has 2 appointments scheduled.  The first is at 3:30, with Anthony Perry (president of the Seaboard Products Corporation, for whom Wolfe has conducted investigations before.  The second, scheduled for 6:00, is with a woman who declined to give her name or to describe her situation.  (I found it odd that he made the appointment; presumably, her voice intrigued him.)

Perry’s situation involves an apparent theft of $30,000 from a slush fund under the control of his VP, Ramsey Muir.  (This fund, we can infer, is used to bribe governments in other countries on behalf of the corporation.  Muir has accused a young woman employed by the corporation, Clara Fox; Perry wants Wolfe to investigate the theft; he states that he is convinced she is innocent.  Wolfe leaves for his orchid date, and Archie begins to explore the theft.  He asks Goodwin to accompany him to the corporation’s offices to begin the investigation.  During the discussion, Fritz Brenner (chef) enters to inform Archie that a man has arrived.  This is unusual, because Archie has not been expecting anyone until 6, and then he was expecting an anonymous woman.  Still, he has Fritz to show him in—remember, Perry is still there, and he and Goodwin are discussing the theft of $30,000.  It’s not clear why this new arrival was not stashed in the front room until Perry had departed.  (Archie fends off Perry’s insistence for immediate action.

So we have Perry headed back to his offices, Wolfe in the plant rooms, and Archie in the office with a stranger, whose name is Harlan Scovil.  From Wyoming.  He is apparently expecting to meet some people at Wolfe’s.  And Perry phones, insisting that Goodwin come at once—Muir is ging to call the cops to arrest Clara Fox.  Archie heads out, leaving Scovil in the office (after informing Fritz that he’s leaving, and asking him to provide refreshments.

So that’s where we begin.  And already things are a bit unusual—both in the acceptance of an unseen, anonymous client, and in leaving a stranger in the office.  Goodwin pokes around a bit, talks to some of the employees (including Clara Fox, with whom he is almost immediately impressed).  He returns to the office, having forestalled any immediate arrests, to find Scovil gone.  And, shortly after 6, the client shows up, with two others, Mike Walsh and Hilda Lundquist.  And…the client is Clara Fox.  And Scovil is apparently one of the people who was to be there.

Fox proceeds to tell a tale of her father’s youth in the wild west, mining gold and carousing, and, incidentally, helping a group of men; the group collectively known as the Rubber Band—including a man known as “Rubber” Coleman, Vic Lundquist, Mike Walsh, and Harlan Scovil--saving a man calling himself George Rowley from being lynched.  Rowley promises the men who helped him a large reward when he received his inheritance.  Rowley, we learn, is none other than the Marquis of Clivers.  And, according to Fox, no one ever got a cent of the promised reward.  She wants Wolfe to get it for them.

Here’s the second oddity—this hardly seems like something Wolfe would undertake.  There’s no investigation to undertake.  It seems next to impossible to find any proof that Clivers is Rowley.  And the third oddity is that he basically dumps Perry (and Seaboard) in favor of Clara Fox, despite his having to work on spec for her, as opposed to for a relatively large, guaranteed fee from Perry’s firm.

The investigation (if we can even call it an investigation) proceeds, including the need to hide Fox in the brownstone for several days.  Fox is arrested for larceny [although I would have thought that the theft of $30,000 (about a half a million these days) would warrant a higher level charge, based on a complaint lodged by Muir.  And there’s a second murder in the mix.  Once we get to the conclusion, it’s dramatically and emotional satisfying, although we have a fourth oddity* that also goes unexplained.*

I don’t think this is among the best books in the series, but the characters and the situation (especially the back story to Fox’s wanting t hire Wolfe) are well drawn.  Despite my misgivings, I think it’s well worth the time,

*This end note is basically a spoiler; don’t read it unless you don’t plan to read the book.

The second murder is apparently overheard on a telephone call apparently made by Mike Walsh—there is the sound of a gun shot while he is speaking to Wolfe.  It is, however, not the case that the murder occurred at that time, or that Walsh was speaking.  But how (the “why” is obvious—to establish an alibi) was the sound of the shot created, if the murderer was in no position to fire a shot at that time?  Wolfe works it out, but his explanation is flawed.  He could not have replicated the shot based on his reconstruction of the shot, because, based on his explanation, he might have replicated the method, but he could not have done so in a way that would have allowed him to actually hear the sound of the gun shot. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Lawrence Block, The Burglar In Short Order

Lawrence Block, The Burglar In Short Order
© Lawrence Block (various dates for the stories) 2020
Lawrence Block Productions 2020
ISBN 978-1-951939-61-8

In 1977, Lawrence Block published the first the first (of 11) “burglar” mysteries (Burglars Can’t Be Choosers)—the burglar is Bernie Rhodenbarr, a 30-something gentleman thief who ages little (or not at all) through the series..  The most recent is The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons (2013; I have trouble believing it’s been that long since the last—which does seem to be, actually, the last).  Over the years, Block also wrote the stories included in this collection.  They are (mostly) similar in tone to the novels (and, in a couple of cases, are actually excerpts from one or another of the novels).  For me, being able to spend a little time in Bernie’s company has been a real treat.

The stories, like the books, are neatly plotted, and told (by Bernie) with wit and humor.  There are 13 stories here (plus a forward and an afterward), and I found them, for the most part delightful.  I’m not going to discuss each story, but I do want to mention in particular 3 of them, the three strongest (and longest) pieces in the book.  (Another worth a specific mention is “The Burglar Who Collected Copernicus.)

The first, “Like a Thief in the Night,” finds Bernie in an office building, burgling, when a very attractive young woman walks in on him.  She’s there to retrieve what she describes as some of her work products that she wants copies of as she looks for a new job.  Bernie goes about his own burgling, while keeping an eye on her—even helping her with some locks.  There’s a twist in the ending that I did not see coming, and it’s the twist that makes this story a delight.

You may have heard about this, but maybe not.  Elvis Presley has been dead for a while.  Bernie gets hired by a lovely writer for a tabloid to get pictures of Elvis’s bedroom in Graceland, which means betting past some very serious security.  How he manages (related in “The Burglar Who Dropped In On Elvis”) is really nicely handled, and the description of the event itself is a hoot.  The twist at the end here is also neatly done.

My favorite tale is “The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke.”  Block has a pretty well-known love for Rex Stout’s series of novels and novellas featuring Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, with a couple of novels (Make Out With Murder and The Topless Tulip Caper) using one man’s belief that Wolfe is a real person (these are really good, especially if you are a Nero Wolfe fan).  In this story, Bernie is selling a pristine copy of Stout’s first Nero Wolfe mystery (Fer-de-Lance, 1934; first editions are currently listed on used book sites for in excess of $20,000) to a very wealthy, very eccentric collector (Bernie’s day job is running a used bookstore).  He makes the sale, but the buyer dies, and in a seriously locked-down locked room.  The denouement is plays out a lot like the conclusion of a Nero Wolfe mystery, and there are, as added attractions, the buyer’s lovely wife and a mention of a Peter Lovesey story in the most recent issue of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

The concluding 6 pieces in the collection, while somewhat interesting, didn’t really add much, at least for me.  But the first half of the book is worth the price, and then some.  If you are already a fan of Block’s work, then you really should have The Burglar In Short Order.  If you’re not already a fan, it’s a nice place to start.  And you’ll only have 57 more mysteries to get your hands on.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Rex Stout, The Red Box

Rex Stout, The Red Box
Copyright © Estate of Rex Stout
Original publication: 1938
Available as an ebook

It’s early spring in 1936; Helen Frost will turn 21 in about two months, and will come into her inheritance from her father. [1]  He left an estate worth about $2 million to her, cutting his wife (her mother) out of the will.  A $2 million estate, adjusted for inflation from 1918 [2] to current price levels, would be the rough equivalent of $35 million now.  If the estate yielded a 4% income return, her income would have been about $80,000 per year (or about $1.4 million today).  Clearly, whether we’re looking at 1936 or at 2020, she was a very well-to-do young woman.

But, until she turns 21, her uncle (Dudley Frost) is in charge of her estate, and her mother, Calida Frost, apparently has day-to-day management of the household.  Oh—and Dudley’s son Lew (an aspiring Broadway producer who seems to have a hit on his hands) is in love with his cousin, which has led to his exploring some sociological arcana.  Helen, despite her wealth, refuses to just live off her wealth—she has a job, as a model at the fashion house founded and run by Boyden McNair.  He was something of a family friend in the ‘teens, and a failed artist, when they were all living in Paris.  His wife died in childbirth and he lost his daughter about two years later.  His daughter was born about two months before Helen.

In relatively short order after the story opens, one of the other models (Molly Lauck) working a fashion show at McNair’s place dies of cyanide poisoning, from a box of chocolates she swiped (her term) from McNair’s desk.  So the poison was not intended for her; more likely, McNair was the intended victim.  Nero Wolfe is drawn into investigation by a strategem used by cousin Lew (whose real objective is to get Helen out of McNair’s place).  Subsequently, McNair comes to talk with Wolfe, and tells him that he wants Wolfe to accept him as his client, and announces his intention of making Wolfe the executor of his estate.  Wolfe is not amused.

He shortly becomes less amused—McNair dies, in Wolfe’s office, having taken poisoned aspirin tablets. 

The upshot of the second death is that Wolfe does agree to become McNair’s executor, and, in his will, is left a red box.  Exactly where it is, and what is in it, becomes the initial focus of Wolfe’s investigation.  And Wolfe believes, early on, that he knows who is responsible for these two deaths. And what the motive for the primary murder is.  But proof turns out to be very hard to acquire.

In the end, though, he thinks he has enough to try to wrap up the case.  We have the usual gathering of suspects and interested parties (and Inspector Cramer) in the office.  Wolfe explains what the motive for the murders has been, and, in doing so, reveals that the origins of the entire situation are a result of what happened in Paris nearly 21 years before.

Stout is still sorting some things out (this is the 4th book in the series), and the character of Cramer is somewhat in flux.  Both Wolfe and his associate (and goad) Archie Goodwin are also coming into better focus.  I think this is one of the better of the early books, which is probably not the consensus opinion.  It’s certainly worth reading, however one chooses to rank it in the series.

[1] He died in 1916, while serving as a pilot in the newly-established British air corps.  (He was an American citizen, as were his wife and daughter.)

[2] The price level fell by about 7% between 1918 and 1936.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Frances and Richard Lockridge, Murder and Blueberry Pie

Frances and Richard Lockridge, Murder and Blueberry Pie
Copyright © 1959 Frances and Richard Lockridge
Available as an e-book

A Nathan Shapiro story.  The (young) widow of a USAF pilot who died in an accident, living in a small Connecticut town, becomes involved (in order)  a tour of colonial homes, as a singatory to a will, with the editor of the local newspaper, and murder.

The first murder in question takes place in NYC and, through a series of circumstances, brings Detective (first class) Nathan Shapiro to the suburbs; there is some reason to believe that the victim's death might be related to the signing of the will of an elderly woman in the town.  The murder and Shapiro's investigation, are nicely handled.  

One of Shapiro's ongoing personality quirks is his sense of inferiority as a detective--which we, as readers, rapidly learn is a misperception on his part.  So we have a generally engaging cast and a nice piece of detection by Shapiro.  The book has, I think, a couple of problems, one minor and one. for me, major.  The minor flaw is that the emerging romantic involvement of the newspaper editor and the woman whose husband has died takes up too much space; the "blueberry pie" interlude is an example..  But that's OK.  

The major flaw, for me, is something that shows up with regularity in the Lockridge's books.  There is an extended fem-jep scene, in which the jeopardy comes to naught, and that could have been eliminated at no real cost to the story.  If those two episodes were eliminated, however, the book would be too short (to be a novel) and too long (to be a novella). 

A pleasant read, but not a compelling one.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Rex Stout, The League of Frightened Men

Rex Stout, The League of Frightened Men© 1934 Rex Stout (Renewed 1966)
Bantam.  Also available as an ebook and from used book sellers
ISBN  978-0553762983

The second Nero Wolfe mystery, and a worthy entry in the series.  Paul Chapin was seriously injured (resulting in permanent damage to his right leg) in a hazing incident at Harvard some 20 years earlier.  He has recently become a best-selling author (and he has been charged with writing an indecent book, based on the sexual content and depiction of violence of his current novel).  And the Harvard students, now middle-aged men, responsible for his injuries begin to die (two of them so far)—with cryptic verses sent to those remaining hinting at more deaths to come.  (These men have maintained their relationship largely as a result of Chapin’s injuries; they have, over the years, tries to provide him with financial and other assistance.)

One of those men-Andrew Hibbard, a psychology professor, who believes Chapin is responsible for the deaths (as do his classmates), tries to hire Wolfe to prevent Chapin from killing him. Wolfe, of course, turns him down.  Soon thereafter, Hibbard disappears, and classmates assume that Chapin is responsible.  Hibbard’s niece attempts to hire Wolf t find her uncle or discover his murderer; he rejects her as a client.  But he has a plan—to hire the Harvard gang, with shared prorated (from thousands to only a few dollars, depending on their current financial conditions). 

Wolfe, as usual, leaves the active part of the investigation to Archie.  He investigates by reading Chapin’s novels (including the current one, which has been banned as obscene—he tells Archie to approach his usual bookseller, because, after all, what’s the point of ab obscenity trial if not to encourage sales of the book?).

Archie’s part of the investigation doesn’t lead to much (although it does turn up some physical evidence); Wolfe’s reading of the books, however, persuades him that he knows what has happened, is happening, and is going to happen.  Then, one of the Harvard guys is murdered, no doubt about it.  Chapin was on the scene.  His guilt is assumed by one and all (except Wolfe; I thought there were some circumstances that made the certainty of Chapin’s guilt somewhat premature).

The ending is well-handled, although Chapin is not pleased with the outcome.

What is, to me, the most interesting aspect of the book is how well it reflects Stout’s earlier work as a literary novelist.  Between 1929 and 1931, he published 3 novels—How Like a God, Seed on the Wind, and Forest Fire (Forest Fire is my personal choice for worst book ever written).  All three have psychological aspects, including psycho-sexual elements that would please your basic Freudian.  The psycho-sexual elements in The League of Frightened Men are quite clear, and while this aspect of the book most strongly relates to Chapin’s actions and motivations, there are hints involving some of the others.  (his first Nero Wolfe book, Fer-de-Lance, also has some Freudian overtones, as do several of his later books).  But those elements are basically side issues in the Wolfe books.  Personally, I think his move away from plots emphasizing psychological aberrations (and that aspect is most prominent in this book) was a good thing.  

While this is probably not among my top 10 Nero Wolfe mysteries, that leaves it as one of the better mysteries in the genre.  I have read it often, and I suspect I will read it again.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Frances and Richard Lockridge, The Faceless Adversary

Frances and Richard Lockridge, The Faceless Adversary
J.P. Lippincott and Co. 1956
© Frances and Richard Lockridge 1956
Available as an ebook and from used booksellers.

John Hayward, having just asked the woman he loves (Barbara Phillips)to marry him, arrives at his apartment, and finds the police waiting for him.  They ask him to come with them, to answer questions about the murder of Nora Evans.  From their questioning, it’s apparent that they believe (with some reason) that he murdered her to get out of his relationship with her.  They do not, at this point, have sufficient evidence to charge him with murder; he is released on bond (of $20,000—something around $150,000 at today’s prices).  Hayward is in his early 30s, a veteran of the Korean War, and an assistant vice-president of a large New York bank.  And things do not look good for him.

He and Barbara find themselves looking for evidence of his innocence (and of someone else’s guilt; the police keep him under surveillance and continue to build a case against him.  And there is a bad-cop (Grady), good-cop (Nathan Shapiro) element to the story.  (This is the first, of ten, books in which Shapiro plays a major role.  He winds up being instrumental in identifying the actual murderer, although it’s hard to call him the lead character.  He has a few walk-on appearances in the Mr. and Mrs. North books, also written by the Lockridges.)

The Lockridges do their usual good job of making the reader see and feel what New York was like (and, in this case, what a part of the Connecticut suburbs were like).  John and Barbara make an attractive couple, and there is a charming secondary character, the Anglican priest, Father Higbee, who both accepts their account of what has happened, but provides them with some insight into the people in his small Connecticut town who are a part of what has happened.

The Lockridges were never really among the top rank of mystery writers in their career (spainng the years from the early 1940s to the late 1970s; Richard carried on as a solo act after Frances’s death in the early ‘60s).  But they were reliable, and their main characters [(the Norths in particular, but also Shapiro and Merton Heimrich (24 books, a state police inspector introduced in the second Mr. and Mrs North book (Murder Out of Turn)] were always likeable.  IThe Faceless Adversary is a good example of their work—solidly plotted, with appealing characters.  I have always found that spending a few hours with thir books time well spent, and The Faceless Adversary is no exception.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Leonard Gribble The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

Leonard Gribble The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, reprint edition in the British Library of Crime Classics
2018Poison Pen Press 2018
© Leonard Gribble 1939

A competently done story, with a pretty much faceless protagonist (Chief Inspector Slade).  The murder takes place during a football (soccer) match, between a prominent professional team and what is perhaps the best amateur team in England.  Shortly before the end of the first half, one of the amateurs, John Doyce (who had only recently joined the teeam) collapses, and dies shortly after being carried of the field.  The cause of death turns out to be poison, one of the alkaloids.  Inspector Slade and his assistant, Sergeant Clinton, investigate. 

Almost anyone might have committed the murder--the deceased turns out to be something of a bastard.  And it may be linked to the death, some years before, of a young girl , in a town in which a number of the principals in the story lived or  had business dealings.  But how the murder was committed is at issue.  And it's the "how" that is, in my mind, the weakest part of the narrative.  

The poison has been injected into Doyce's forearm by his being scratched by the dead girl's engagement ring, onto which the poison has been smeared.  This seems quite a hit-and-miss method of murder.  It's unclear how one of the players could have worn the ring (it was, after all, a girl's ring, and she is described as petit.  Carrying the ring in his uniform--do soccer uniforms even have pockets?--would make it difficult to get to.  Opportunity might not have presented itself.  The poison might have been rubbed off the ring.  The amount  \of poison, of necessity, given the method, might have been insufficient to kill him.  Someone might have noticed the murder scratching Doyce.   Quite a number of things might have gone wrong, or rendered the killer without opportunity.

Stylistically, Gribble has a few tics that are annoying, the chief of which is that several characters, but most noticeably Sgt. Clinton "grunt" relatively long passages of dialogue.  Nonetheless, I thought the story was reasonably well-told, even if it does not induce me to seek out any more of Gribble's quite extensive catalog.