Sunday, October 13, 2013

Re-reading Rex Stout's Early Novels

I’ve started doing reading “projects,” for some reason, and the most recent was to re-read the non-Nero-Wolfe books by Rex Stout.  I actually have them all, and the largest sum I have ever paid for a book, I paid for one of them.

Five novel:
Under the Andes (1914)
How Like a God (1929)
Seed on the Wind (1930)
Forest Fire (1933
The President Vanishes (1934) [Published anonymously], reprinted under his name in 1967]

Four mysteries:
The Hand in the Glove: A Dol Bonner Mystery (1937)
Mountain Cat (1939)
Red Threads (1939) [Inspector Cramer]
Alphabet Hicks (1941)  [APA: The Sound of Murder (1965)]

The Tecumseh Fox mysteries:
Double for Death (1939)
Bad for Business (1940)
The Broken Vase (1941)

I’ve said this before, Rex Stout is my favorite mystery writer.  But I will also have to say that the five novels he published are mostly not worth reading.  Under the Andes reads very much like an attempt to write something like Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger books (in particular, The Lost World).  How Like a God—well, here’s a fairly accurate review of it on Goodreads (  Seed on the Wind (which is available from an Amazon seller for $783.50, if you’re willing do something foolish, and for between $300 and $500 elsewhere) is (how shall I phrase this politely) a bad attempt at a Freudian sex novel.  Forest Fire—which I purchased for $75—is another psychological novel, set in Montana, in which the main character is a sexually confused forest ranger.  Its sole reason for continued interest is that Stout reused a scene in it (which went on for about 4 pages) in Death of a Dude (in which it took two paragraphs).  And The President Vanishes, which is actually the most readable of these five books, reminds me in a lot of ways of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935;'t_Happen_Here), in that there’s the threat of a totalitarian military takeover of the U.S.  Subject yourselves to these only if you’re feeling masochistic.  The last 10 pages are pretty good, though.  It’s hard to believe, really, that he published this book in the same year that Fer-de-Lance appeared; the first Wolfe book in incomparably better.

Of the 7 non-Wolfe mysteries, by far the best is the first, The Hand in the Glove, featuring Dol Bonner.  (Bonner, of course, appears in subsequent books—one of the Fox mysteries, one of the Wolfe novellas, and in one of the Wolfe novels.)  (  Bonner re-appears in Bad For Business, and seems to have an almost entirely different character. 

Mountain Cat, set in Cody, Wyoming, involves the effort of Delia Brand (aside—Stout reused this name, for the character of Delia Brandt, in Might As Well Be Dead) to solve her father’s murder.  The town in which it is set has always seemed to me to appear larger than it really was (1,800 in 1930; 2,500 in 1940), with taxis, “high-rise” buildings, and so on.  But the main character is fairly well done and the solution is fairly arrived at.  (

Inspector Cramer has a major part in Red Threads (and the red threads involve an old Navajo blanket unraveled and re-woven into a jacket).  (  The introduction to this book, which was re-printed as a part of Bantam’s Res Stout re-issue series, in notable for trashing—justifiably—Stout’s knowledge of and use of native American culture.  Still, the mystery is fairly well done, and it’s nice to see Cramer not dealing with Wolfe.  Although he doesn’t actually solve the mystery.

Alphabet Hicks, the title character of the book, is a disbarred lawyer currently driving a cab, and apparently becoming involved in the occasional investigation (2 or 3 others are mentioned in the book).  (  Hicks is hired by Judith Dundee to figure out why her husband, industrialist R. I. Dundee, believes she’s selling trade secrets to his arch-rival.  It also has one of the most insipid love-struck young men in the history of mystery novels.

The three Tecumseh Fox books, in terms of quality, are close to The Hand in the Glove.  (  Double for Death is nicely plotted and makes use of a confusion of identities twist.  Bad for Business, which Stout re-wrote as a Wolfe novella (and, frankly shouldn’t have), deals with industrial sabotage (and also has an insipid love-struck young man).  The weather provides a crucial clue.  The Broken Vase involves the suicide of an extremely promising classical violin player, and a stunningly simple ploy for destroying his career.  (Stout also re-uses a plot twist in this book in one of the Wolfe novellas—but with a, well, twist, but telling you which would be a spoiler.)  It’s also the best of the three Fox books.  Stout was known to have said, in later years, that Fox was not a real character, just a bundle of characteristics.  I’m not sure he was right about that; was is true is that the books apparently did not get good reviews and sold poorly.

After re-reading all of them, I find my love of the Nero Wolfe books intact, and I also find it difficult to understand how it was possible for his earlier books to be so…inadequate…when, from the beginning, the Wolfe books were so compelling.

And this has been much longer than I intended.


  1. Really enjoyed your recap! I'm a Nero Wolfe fan but haven't read Stout's other books except for Hand in Glove. From your descriptions, I think I'll save my money.


    1. I actually like the Tecumseh Fox novels; they're just a significant step down from the Wolfe books. But the novels from the late 1920s/early 1930s are all but unreadable. But they're by Stout, so I got them...