Rex Stout, Too Many Women
© 1947 Estate of Rex Stout
ASIN : B004SOQ0A8Some
Rex Stout is without question my favorite writer of mysteries; I have read all of the novels and novellas multiple times, and, with few exceptions, find re-reading them a pleasurable experience. Some months ago I began a chronological re-reading of the novels, and have reached, and read, the 8th novel in the series, Too Many Women. The basic plot is perfectly acceptable. But I always find the treatment of many of the characters difficult at best for a modern audience; I would not be surprised if it was also difficult for many readers on its initial publication (in 1947
An employee (Waldo Moore) of a civil engineering company (Naylor- Kerr, Inc.) has been killed (nearly four months prior to Wolfe’s becoming involved. Wolfe is hired by the firm’s president, Jasper Pine, to investigate an allegation that Moore was murdered, not simply killed in a hit-and-rum auto accident, because rumors that it was murder are rampant and are disrupting the corporation.(Left unsaid is the implication that his murder, if such it was, is somehow related to his employment.) In order to pursue the investigation, Archie Goodwin is “hired,” as a personnel expert, to look into the corporation’s excessive turnover rate, especially among the clerical workforce. According to Pine, Moore’s presence—he seems to be extremely attractive to the women in the place (although Archie’s description of him does not help the reader understand why that should be the case. He is there using an alias (Peter Truett).
Archie seems inordinately struck by the physical attractiveness of the clerical staff (especially three of them, Rosa Bendini, Gwen Ferris, and Hester Livsey (who had been engaged to marry Moore). And he also learns fairly quickly that Moore was disliked by many of the professional staff and considered redundant by his supervisor. He also has to cope with Mr. Kerr Naylor (the son of one of the firm’s founders and named for the other—and the source of the murder allegation) and Jasper Pine’s wife Cecily (sister of Kerr Naylor). In fact, much of his investigation seems to consist of dining and dancing with two of the women (Bendini and Ferris).
And the investigation seems to be getting nowhere, until Kerr Naylor tells Archie, in circumstances that preclude his following it up, that, in addition to knowing that Moore was murdered, he knows who the murderer is. An additional complication is that Cecily Pine is (as she is referred to in the book) a “chronic befriender” of young men, and that Moore, after his stint as a befriendee has ended, gets hired by the firm. She has, as we learn, a motive for this. Things heat up when there is a second death, obviously murder, and in a fashion that makes it clear that Moore’s death was emphatically not an accident.
The conclusion is not exactly surprising, and “justice,” of a sort, prevails. It is, however, an instance of it being extremely unlikely that anyone could be convicted of the murders, given what we know and the police would be able to prove.
So why do I find the book so difficult? From the first time I read it—in the early 1970s (this was not an easy book to find, even in libraries, then, and it has remained hard to find since)…Well. Let me put it this way: Archie’s attitude toward and behavior with the three women at Naylor-Kerr with whom Archie becomes involved is barely short of deplorable. He presents them to us basically as sex objects, beings in whom he can only be interested because they arouse him sexually. And he treats them, essentially, that way, and none of them seem to mind. As a result, this is the book I have read least often of any of them (although there is another one…but I’ll get to that in a couple of months). In my opinion—and a lot of people do disagree with me—the one glaring weakness in Stout’s writing is his attitude toward the women in his books. And this is the book in which that attitude is most clearly on display.