Rex Stout, Over My Dead Body
© Rex Stout 1940. Renewed 1968.
Every time I have read Over My Dead Body, I have wondered about the economic/financial status of the Balkan states. This time, I did something about it. I found an interesting (well, to me, anyway) research paper by Kiril Kossev (University of Oxford), “Finance and Development in Southeast Europe in the Interwar Period” (https://www.nbs.rs/internet/latinica/90/seemhn/seemhn_conf/SEEMHN_8_Kiril_Kossev.pdf). Among other things, I learned that Yugoslavia ran a large and persistent foreign trade deficit in the inter-war period (1920-1940) and that Yugoslavia borrowed $140 million from western nations (between 1919 and 1932 (today’s equivalent would b3 $3.5 trillion), the U.S being by far the largest lender. Yugoslavia continued to borrow heavily between 1923 and 1938 (France and the U.S. were the largest lenders).
So the stakes were large. And obtaining ongoing financial support from the U.S. was of vital importance to the governments and to the economy of the Balkans. And given what we know, in general, about the politics (read your Eric Ambler) of the region, informal diplomacy, intrigue, and even murder seem to be very real possibilities.
In OMDB, Stout brings together two young women (Neya Tormic and Carla Lovchen), an English intelligence officer (Percy Ludlow), and a German financier (and Nazi, Rudolph Faber). Tormic claims to be Wolfe’s adoptive daughter (and has documents to back up her claim). There’s also a fashioon designer (Madame Zorka), a father-and-son pair of international financier, and a lovely young woman who seems to send a fair amount of time unclothed. Tormic and Lovchen are working—somewhat illegally—at a fencing and dance studio, where Ludlow and Faber are clients. Tormic is accused of stealing a package of diaonds from another patron, and seeks Wolfe’s help.
In fairly short order, Ludlow is murdered (with an epee, which, without modification, would have been incapable of inflicting a fatal wound). And she is now dependent on Wolfe to protect her from a murder charge. And an FBI agent shows up to ask Wolfe if he has accepted a commission from a foreign government (which he would be required to report). Inspector Cramer is getting less than enthusiastic support from his superiors, and basically turns things over to Wolfe.
Obviously things get complicated.
OMDB is the most political of all the novels (in my opinion), from start to finish.*(Spoiler alert for the footnote.) And watching Wolfe have to come to terms with the existence—and, even more, the presence—of his adopted daughter also make this perhaps the most personal story as well. One of the best, in my opinion, and one that can be read multiple times without becoming stale.
*(In the other three heavily political books—The Silent Speaker, The Doorbell Rang, and A Family Affair), the political issues turn out to be germane to the story, but not necessarily to the murders).