L is for … THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN (1935) by Rex Stout

The Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter L. My contribution this week is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge. L is for …

THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN by Rex Stout

I do read books, but I never yet got any real satisfaction out of one – Archie Goodwin

There are some books that in order to properly savour you have to allow them time to ferment properly; works of such standing that to truly appreciate their vintage you must allow for expectations to build, perhaps even over a matter of years or perhaps decades, before you metaphorically uncork them. To put it more prosaically, there are books that you know are probably really, really good and you are prepared to indulge in some serious deferred gratification so as to really enjoy them at just the right moment. I knew after my first Carter Dickson experience (the wonderfully titled, THE READER IS WARNED) that I would want to read all the author’s books – and the same went after my first encounters with Raymond Chandler (THE BIG SLEEP), Graham Greene (BRIGHTON ROCK), Ellery Queen (FACE TO FACE), Ross Macdonald (THE CHILL), Margaret Millar (THE SOFT TALKERS), John le Carre (CALL FOR THE DEAD) and so many other authors of crime fiction that, over thirty years later, I still read with undimmed pleasure. And I am glad to say that for most of these writers there are still a few examples of their work, in some cases major ones, that I have left deliberately untouched, saving them as small investment for my future, perhaps to stave off a time when I will no longer be able to contemplate one. That list has of course been steadily shrinking as the years have gone by and THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN is one of the last of the unread Rex Stout books on my shelves – and finally I finished it today, having first made plans to read it over twenty years ago. Was it worth the wait?

Nero Wolfe, Stout’s pachyderm of an armchair detective, is here in his second published case and this book is held by many to be among the best of the lot – which is saying something as Stout published 74 long and short novels featuring the detective over a period of 40 years. Their great innovation came by combining the hard and soft-boiled traditions, the genius of Wolfe matched with the streetsmarts of his legman Archie Goodwin. Like John H. Watson and SS Van Dine, he is the narrator of the stories, which are traditional cozy whodunits but told in the vernacular of the tough guy school, which seemingly shouldn’t work as a combination but which is superbly good in Stout’s hands. Archie in his own way is almost as eccentric as his beer-swilling, orchid-fancying ‘merely a genius’ of a boss. He’s a tough guys who drinks milk, is always sharply dressed, has several girl-friends, most notably Lily Rowan in the later books, but has never felt the itch to get married and lives in an all-male household for a man who, Holmes-like, admires but seems unsusceptible to feminine wiles. Or as Wolfe actually puts it in this book:

… the orchids were his concubines: insipid, expensive, parasitic, and temperamental.

 

Goodwin and Wolfe’s relationship is at the heart of the series and it is a constant delight – far from deferring to the great detective’s whims and mystifications, Archie frequently argues and berates Wolfe and yet we know that he would give his life for him without batting an eyelid. The dialogue crackles and the characters are always lively though most readers would admit that, while they are all perfectly adequate and some much more, Stout’s plotting was not his forte.

THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN hower truly stands out as it has one of Stout’s most memorable and unusual stories, one that owes more than just the style of its title to the Conan Doyle tradition. In 1912 a group of Harvard students are involved in a case of hazing gone wrong and freshman Paul Chapin is crippled for life. The students, totaling 30 in all, are united by their guilt over the accident and have remained friendly with Chapin yet fearing him too for he is a a constant, limping reminder of their collective guilt. When one of the 30 dies, a poem is sent to the remaining men telling them indirectly that they will be next. It is unsigned but they all know it comes from Chapin. When another one of the group dies shortly after a visit from Chapin, and then another goes missing, the men become terrified – yet few of them are prepared to do anything about it due to the strangeness of the situation. If the basic setup would not be out of place for a Sherlock Holmes story, its development couldn’t be more different or more typical of Stout. It is Wolfe who, in need of funds to finance his extravagant lifestyle, offers to settle the matter for a sum in excess of $50,000 to be collected from the men on a sliding scale based on their ability to pay. Considering that America was still in the grips of the depression, this is certainly a startling sum and the scene in which Wolfe manages to swing the contract in his favour is tremendously entertaining.

Apart from Chapin, the novel offers several fascinating character studies in a real rogue’s gallery of abnormal psychological types placed under pressure, including one psychologist who, by the novel’s end, swears off the profession as a science. The book is dominated by two deliberately contrasting women – one is the object of Chapin’s love, his former fiancee who broke off their engagement after his accident; the other is the woman he eventually married as a form of self torture: Dora, the dresser of his beloved, and a woman who, in Archie’s memorable words:

… she wasn’t really ugly, I mean she wasn’t hideous. Wolfe described it right the next day: it was more subtle than plain ugliness; to look at her made you despair of ever seeing a pretty woman again.

This humorous if not very kind-hearted set of observations, is refined when we learn that she has been stealing intimate items of clothing from her mistress to give them to her husband, who locks then in a box “with his soul”. And yet she proves to be utterly resolute, direct, determined and completely devoted to Chapin, qualities that Wolfe admires tremendously. Chapin ex-fiancee, still the object of his romantic obsession after nearly twenty-five years, is given and extended scene late in the novel when Chapin is found next to the dead body of her husband. This long chapter, largely given over to a virtual monologue as she explains to Archie her feelings of loss over her recently deceased husband and her more complex emotions about Chapin, a man she wronged in her youth but still refuses to pity, is particularly fine and well illustrates the seriousness of intent behind Stout’s ingenious use of the detective formula. As Wolfe closes in on the murderer, Archie follows a few leads and at one point is memorably drugged, leading to another extended sequence when he tries to regain his bearings, before collapsing again in another of Stout’s tour de force passages:

This was the last word I heard. The only other thing I remembered was that a tight wire which had been stretched between my temples, holding them together, suddenly parted with a twang.

Wolfe decides that he must defend Chapin, if nothing else because if he is found guilty by the police then they will have solved the crime and he won’t be able to collect his money from the surviving members of the ‘league’. All the suspects are brought together in his New York brownstone and guilt is finally and irrevocably assigned and proved – but not before Wolfe berates the murderer for not having done a better job in covering their tracks!

This is a marvelously entertaining read thanks to reams of sharp dialogue, a multitude of engaging characters and a great plot that takes several unexpected turns and always keeps you guessing. It’s been twenty years and now I have finally read THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN – it’s been a real treat, and well worth the wait. A classic.

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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27 Responses to L is for … THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN (1935) by Rex Stout

  1. Bev says:

    This is one of the Nero Wolfe books that I have yet to read. A wonderful review!

    I liken your deliberately saving books to read to my “thrill of the hunt” for some of these classic books. My husband (who doesn’t know what kind of pandora’s box he could be opening) doesn’t understand why I don’t just go on ABE books or whatever and order up the classic novels that I’m looking for rather than haunting used book stores. I love just browsing through the shelves and suddenly coming across a vintage mystery that I’ve been looking for for years. It’s like finding buried treasure. It’s just not the same when you click a few buttons online and have things shipped. Plus…it works the same way as you deliberately waiting….I don’t read every single title by an author all at once because I often have to look and look and look before I find a complete series.

    • Thanks very much for reading Bev – there really is nothing quite like the excitement of ‘finding’ something that you suddenly realise you really, really want and there it is, in book form, for just a few pennies (hopefully) – just not the same on Abe or Amazon!

    • That’s excellent Bev – I have had a Mr & Mrs North unread on the shelf since about 1989 when I bought it at the Mysterious Bookstore in San Francisco – I’m off to find it now – brilliant stuff – thanks again.

  2. Bill Selnes says:

    Rex Stout writes wonderful stories. I have read many of the Nero Wolfe books and stories but far from all of them. A few years I bought John McAleer’s biography of Stout who had an amazing intellect.

    • Thanks for reading Bill – McAleer really helps you to undestand where the books come from, doesn’t he? Stout is really odd and really wonderful – did you ever see the TV version with Tim Hutton? Equally eccentric and great I thought (especially series 1).

      • Bill Selnes says:

        I enjoyed the series and regretted that it lasted but 2 seasons. It has already been a decade since the first season. I thought Maury Chaykin was an excellent Wolfe. I never saw the short lived series where William Conrad was Wolfe. Conrad would have seemed perfect casting.

        The series starring Hutton and Chaykin had Lily Rowan played by Kari Matchett. She was born about 70 km from where I live in Saskatchewan.

        • Hello Bill. I can’t believe it has been that long since the show was made! But of course Chaykin has since passed away. I did watch the Conrad show when I was a kid and it was OK I suppose but it was a bit pedestrian and the contemporary 70s setting didn’t help very much either in terms of preserving the mystique. I do carry a bit of torch for Matchett I must admit and it was great when she turned up as Hutton’s ex-wife in his new series LEVERAGE.

  3. Yvette says:

    Great review. I am a big fan of the Nero Wolfe books and re-read them all (well, most of ‘em) every few years. This is one of Rex Stout’s best and of course, I love the title. I’m a sucker for a good title. :)

    I don’t really know what it is about Wolfe that I find so enchanting, but for me, he is the absolute ultimate eccentric genius. I love that grumpy fat man. I would love to live in that Manhattan brownstone with all those ordchids on the roof. No question.

    • Hello Yvette – I know what you mean – there is something truly enveloping about the world with Wolfe’s ultra rigid schedules, Fritz’s mouthwatering cooking and Archie’s spirited but down-to-earth commentary on their vaguely picaresque adventures. it;s wonderfully comic and rich, LEAGUE also struck me as one of the few novels where the plot really stands out, which is not really meant as a criticism since it just makes me want to re-read them since the enjoyment comes from the language and the colour and the emotion and rarely from the the ingenuity of the stories, which does admittedly seem to be the kind of appraisal only used positively when discussing the hardboiled style – lucky for me I love it as much as the cozy!

  4. Excellent choice and what a great post – I’ve loved the Wolfe/Goodwin books for ever. I did Locked Room Mysteries for ‘L’ though and can’t think of one of his that would have fitted – it seems he never felt the urge to tackle that particular writing adventure.

    • That is a perfect L you’ve got there, congrats! According to the McAleer’s book, while TOO MANY COOKS is probably the closest Stout came to the subgenre (I think PRISONER’S BASE is however particularly ingenious),apparently the author deliberately sidestepped it because, he felt that ‘Since the interest is focused on one spot, Nero Wolfe would have to go there, and he wouldn’t like that’.

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  6. Kerrie says:

    Thanks for this week’s contribution to CFA. Aren’t the covers great?

  7. Pingback: REX STOUT. The League of Frightened Men (1935). « Only Detect

  8. Colin says:

    Ok, you’ve convinced me that I ought to give this book another chance. I read it four, maybe five years back and came away disappointed. Maybe I expected something else, maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind – can’t say.
    Whatever, you’ve sold me on the notion of dusting it off at the next opportunity.

    • Well, that is very nice of you mate, cheers. I had been saving it up for so long and I just thought it was darn good. It’s not like the best Christie with a plot you will never forget or the best Carr with a villains o well hidden it will blow your socks off – it just, to me, seems to do what Stout does well even better than usual. Where maybe I sort of understand that there might have been a slight disappointment is that Stout’s weakness was plotting. This is better than most in that regard, but may not be the quantum leap shall we say that some of the critical plaudits might suggest. But if you do read it again I hope you come away with a more positive – if not, don;t tell me, I couldn’t handle the guilt!

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  10. Zeno says:

    I just finished this book last night and must admit it was a bit disappointing. It seemed to drag on a bit too long but that was not the worst part. It was with the solution. Now having read the second half of the book quickly I will give the benefit of the doubt there was something I missed. The problem is it is not explained how Wolf reached his conclusion. Particularly the fact of who committed the murder. Also he does not have any hard evidence that could convict the murderer either. It seemed like the solution was speculation that came totally out of the blue. If anyone could point out any clues that I missed please fee free.

    • A lot of Stout plots do tend to be like that – must admit, it’s been too long for me to remember quite how it all came together at the end though, despite this, it is still one of the most memorable books in the series for me at least. Thanks Zeno.

      • Zeno says:

        Tend to be like that in what way? In respect that he does not have hard evidence or the fact there is not a explanation of how Wolf figured out the culprit’s identity?

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