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. 

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