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.