Rex Stout, Two Many Women
© 1947 Rex Stout
I’ve read Too Many Women too many times, but for me most of Stout’s “Nero Wolfe” books are almost endlessly re-readable. Despite its very apparent faults (from a contemporary perspective), it remains, after 70+ years, readable and entertaining.
The plot is fairly straightforward. An executive at Naylor-Kerr, Inc. (an engineering supply company, although that is actually all but irrelevant), Mr. Kerr Naylor (the son of one of the founders, and named after the other), responds to an internal questionnaire about employee turnover, His explanation for the termination of Waldo Moore is one word: Murdered. Moore died at the end of the prior year, his body found on a deserted side street in Manhattan, run over by a car. Wolfe is hired (with his assistant, Archie Goodwin, doing most of the work) to substantiate calling his death murder, or to disprove it. The firm’s president (Jasper Pine) is married to Naylor’s sister (Cecily), who is the largest shareholder in the company. (Naylor, who inherited 25% of the company’s stock, has retained voting control of it, but transferred ownership to a small number of long-time, now mostly retired, employees.)
Following Pine’s suggestion that Archie pose as a personnel expert, Wolfe takes the case and Archie does the legwork. He discovers more than he might have hoped for, beginning with an extremely large number of young, apparently all attractive, women, their workspace being a single large open-plan room in which…well, let me let Archie describe it:
One good glance and I liked the job, The girls. All right there, all being paid to stay right there, and me being paid to move freely about and converse with anyone whomsoever…Probably after I had been there a couple of years I would find that close-ups revealed inferior individual specimens, Grade B or lower in age, contours, skin quality, voice, or level of intellect. But from where I stood at nine-fifty-two Wednesday morning it was enough to take your breath away. At least a half a thousand of them, and the general and overwhelming impression was of—clean, young, friendly, spirited, beautiful, and ready. It was an ocean of opportunity.
I think you can see how this aspect of the book would raise questions among today’s readers (and in fact I always find this part of the narrative somewhat off-putting, along with the depictions of the women employed there who have fairly important roles in the book). The spell is broken when Kerr Naylor, having come up alongside Archie, says. “I doubt very much if there’s a virgin in the room.” Which is another aspect of the book that does not play well with readers today.
(As an aside, I have always had a little difficulty with an open-plan work space filled with desks and filing cabinets and seating 500 or so clerical workers. I rather think this is based on the famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed S. Cc Johnson workspace, constructed in 1936-39, and one of the first, and still one of the most famous open-plan workspaces in America. But I also think that such a space would have been highly unlikely in a 1930s vintage Manhattan high-rise. My calculations suggest that to provide space for 500 clerical workers would require something like 40 square feet per workstation, plus something around half again as much space for filing cabinets and access and ceiling supports, or 30,000 sq.ft. of space—an open space some 300’x100’, which seems unlikely for a high rise at the time,
Archie begins the task of interrogating the staff (not limited to the clerical staff), and things are going nowhere. Although Archie’s dealings with the clerical staff are related clearly, if discreetly. Unfortunately, the results are underwhelming. And Kerr Naylor decides to tell Archie that he actually knows who killed Wilmot Moore, but, as he has no evidence, he can say no more. This little revelation, when reported to Pine, the corporate president, has repercussions, and Naylor tells Archie, before witnesses, that he never said he knew who killed Moore. And, following another death and some stratagems by Wolfe, which put another employee at risk, we get a successful conclusion.
I’ll admit there’s a lot of sexism here, and the Pine household is a strange one. (In common with a number of the other Wolfe stories, some of the sexual behavior of some of the characters would have been, well, unusual for the time. Too Many Clients is a notable example of what I’m referring to.) But if you can come at the book without letting that aspect of it dominate, it’s an interesting case, a generally well-plotted story. Although I think the ending is a bit of a cop-out.