Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Rex Stout, Too Many Women (not for the first time)

 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.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Marbury v. Madison and Stuart V Laird


Cliff Sloan and David McKean, The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court
Copyright © Cliff Sloan and David McKean 2019
Public Affairs/Perseus Books
ISBN 9-781-586-4842-262

I have finished The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court, which focuses on the lead-up to the decision by the Supreme Court in the case of Marbury v. Madison (the Madison in question was James Madison) and its aftermath. Theauthors case is this (at least as I read it):

Congress enacts laws. The presumption is that those laws are both Constitutional and good policy.

The President either signs into law or vetoes legislation passed by Congress. The presumption is that legislation signed into law is both Constitutional and good policy. If the President vetoes legislation passed be Congress, the President is asserting that the legislation is EITHER un-Constitutional, OR bad policy, or both. The veto message should make clear which.

Congress may vote to override the veto (which requires a supermajority), which is telling the President, again, that the legislation is both Constitutional and good policy. And it becomes law.

Note that, at least formally, Congress has the ultimate power.

There is nothing in the Constitution explicitly assigning any regarding the legitimacy of laws—constitutional? unconstitutional?)--role to the Supreme Court.

But, in what was in reality a very minor legal issue--Marbury v. Madison, the Court concluded that a law governing appointments to executive branch offices violated the Constitution and the law was therefore void. (The case involved appointments of four men to the position of justices of the peace.

(Just to be clear, this is my understanding of what I have read so far.  As I reach the end, I have to retract much of that comment on the power of the Court of that.  What the Court did was make explicit that the laws of the United States apply to the president as much as they do to the rest of us.  It's still the case tha Marbury v. Madison was a relatively minor matter.)

Now I first knew anything about Marbury v. Madison was probably in U.S. history in high school. But the underlying issue as never actually mentioned, nor was the controversy over the Constitutional action of the Court.

This sort of stuff keeps me awake at night.

The book, by the way, takes its time getting around to the legal issues. More than the first half of the book is introducing the characters and providing background. (Which gets us to p. 103 of 191, at which point the Court has rendered its decision.)  So what is the background, and what can we conclude about a Supreme Court decision that has, for over 200 years, been seen as one of the defining moments in U.S, Constitutional jurisprudence and history?

This is, actually, the story of two cases, Marbury v. Madison and Stuart v. Laird.

At issue in Marbury v. Madison was the question of whether, and to what extent, the President is bound by the law.  The background, briefly, is this.  John Adams has been defeated for re-election (in 1800), and Thomas Jefferson is to be inaugurate on 4 March 1801.  This leaves a fairly large gap between the election and the transfer of presidential authority to the incoming President.  Adams took advantage of this time lag to appoint scores of people to positions which it was the president’s responsibility to fill.  The making of these appointments continued until lite in the night of 3 March.  Among the appointments were a number of appointments to the position of justice of the peace.  One of those appointees was William Marbury (the other three men who were to receive appointments somehow have had their names dropped from history).  There were, essentially four steps to the appointment:  The president makes the appointment; the appointment is confirmed by the Senate; the president signs the appointment and affixes the Great Seal of the United States; and the letter of appointment (signed and sealed) is delivered to the appointee.  Adams completed the first three of these steps.  James Madison (as Secretary oi State, and acting on Jefferson’s instructions) did not deliver the appointment.  Marbury filed an action (a writ of mandamus) with the Supreme Court to compel the delivery.  The case was finally argued and a decision rendered more than two years later.

(A writ of mandamus is a court order requiring that a specific action be taken—in this case, the delivery of Marbury’s appointment,)

The second case, also argued and decided in1803, Stuart v. Laird, arose from the controversy surrounding the enactment in 1801 and the repeal in 1803 of the Judiciary Act of 1801.  (A good enough discussion is here: Stuart v. Laird - Wikipedia).  Briefly, the Act created a number of new judgeships (which Adams filled as promptly as he could before Jefferson was inaugurated) and allowed the Justices of the Supreme Court to cease “circuit riding.”  When, in 1803, Congress repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, it abolished those juddgeships and required tha the Justices resume circuit riding (which they all loathed, unsurprisingly).  Stuart, who had been appointed to one of the new positions, filed suit asking that the repeal be set aside, because federal judgeships conferred lifetime appointments, that repealing the act and allowing the cancellation of the judgeships unconstitutionally deprived the newly-appointed judges of positions to which they had been lawfully appointed.

So, what happened?

In Marbury v. Madison, the Court agreed that the letter of appointment was illegally withheld (i.e., that the President of the United States was subject to the laws of the United States) but that Marbury had erred by bringing an action directly to the Supreme Court rather than to the Federal district court which would have jurisdiction.  Simply, the Court dismissed Marbury’s action—and it was, apparently, never refined in a federal district court.  But Marshall, in his decision made it quite clear that the president had violated the law, that the law was constitutional, and, had Marbury’s case been brought as an appeal from a district court, the Supreme Court would have sided with him.  The Court did not directly a constitutional issue, but made it clear that the president is as much a subject under the law as anyone.

In short, the president is not above the law.  And, as a side issue, the Supreme Court indicated that (despite there being no explicit language in the Constitution saying so) that the Curt was an equal partner (with the Congress and the President) in determining what is and is not constitutional.

In Stuart v. Laird, the Court ruled that, as the Constitution gave Congress the power to create judicial positions (including, as had already happed, changing the number of Justices on the Supreme Court, as stated in Article III, Section 1:

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

(Interestingly, the Constitution does not explicitly say the appointments are lifetime; that is an inference from there being no fixed term of service stated.)

What the Court made clear was that, if Congress could create judgeships, it could also eliminate = them.  And, if the judgeship was eliminated, there was no explicit or implicit grant of continued employment for judges whose positions might be eliminated—no judgeship, no right to a position (or salary).  Again, but implicitly, the Court was claiming the right ti interpret the Constitution, and, in fact, that its interpretation was binding on the other two branches.  (Also, by making clear the authority of Congress both to create and to eliminate judgeships, it also made clear that Congress, which had eliminated circuit-riding in the 1801 Actt could, and did, in repealing the act, reinstate circuit-riding as a part of the Justices’ job.

I think the authors were right in linking these two cases.  By addressing these issues pretty much simultaneously, the Court made a fairly expansive assertion of authority, an authority that has not been challenged seriously since.

Iain Pears, The Titian Committee

 Iain Pears, The Titian Committee
copytivht © 1991 Iain Pears
Berkeley Prime Crime
ISBN 0-425-18544-1

{n their second outing*, General Taddeo Bottando, his assistant Flavia di Stefano, and Jonthan Argyll (currently employed by an art gallery, but maybe not for long) become embroiled in murder and the complexities of dealing with old masters.  Bottando does not really care that much about the murder and still less about the people involved; he is concerned about his department’s budget, and continued existence.  In this instance, diStefano is sent to Venice to help investigate the murder of Louise Masterson, Ph.D., an art historian and member of the titular Titian committee.  (The committee has six members—well, five now.  It was established by an eminent Italian art historian, Georges Bralle (who retired because of disagreements about how the committee should operate).  The remaining members, art historians all, are Roberts. Kollmar, Van Heteren, Miller, and Lorenzo.

Masterson was murdered in the Gardenetti Reali, a public garden, around midnight.  The first question, of course, is whether the murderer had a personal motive or was a thief for whom things got out of hand.  (This being a mystery novel, we all know how that will play out.  And, given that the motive was personal, and suspicion is likely to fall on the members of the Titian Committee, which of them might have had a motive sufficient to lead to murder.  The initial investigation, conducted by a Venetian policeman, Bovolo (who only really wants  the whole thing to go away), reaches the easy (and quick and safe) conclusion that it was a theft gone wrong.  But, it was, of course, not that easy.

Meanwhile, and more or less by chance, Argyll is in Venice trying to pry a batch of paintings away from the Marchesa du Mulino, to be sent to London and sold at auction.  And the negotiations are not going well.  He runs into di Stefano** at a restaurant, and they wind up working together on her murder and his attempt to sell so he can keep his job.

Nothing, of course, comes easily.  It seems that Masterson had irritated all of the other members of the Titian Committee (but to the point of murder), that one of the members of the committee that another member badly needhas been engaged in somewhat unethical attributions of paintings references to support his application for tenure, that yet a third member (the nephew of the Marchesa, who really wants to get his hands on her paintings); and still another is deeply in love with Masterson, who has been paying to little attention to him.

And, in the midst of all this, Argyll thinks he has found, in a small, rundown church, an actual Titian.  More?  General Bottando shows up in Venice to help things along.  And more people die. 

I must admit to having had some difficulty keeping all the actors clear in my mind, and that the final explication of the who and how and why of things was also a very tangled tale.  So tangled that di Stefano’s explanation left both Bottando and Argyll confused, that Bottando’s clarificaion left both di Stefano and Argyll confused, and that Argyll’s revelations about his findings about his Titian, the Marchesa’s collection, and his commentary on the explanations of the other two leave them confused.  (As an aside, I love Italy—at least the parts I have visited, and this book did not make me particularly eager to travel to Venice.)  Having said that, I will say, again, that this is a marvelous series with characters I enjoy spending time with; my chief regret is that there are only seven books.


*The Raphael Affair (set in Rome) was the first, and I have already reported on #3, The Bernini Bust (set in LA).

**They met in The Rafael Affair and have remained close.