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.