Classics most often fall into one of four categories: the ones you admire, the ones you dislike, the ones you don't give a damn about and, finally, the ones you just can't make your mind up. Rex Stout, as far as I'm concerned, belongs in the fourth. I have read (and occasionally enjoyed) several of his books, tried reading many others. I know his virtues, and his flaws don't escape me. I recognize his profound originality and individuality, his importance to mystery fiction. The man himself I even find quite sympathetic. Still, I can't get the jury to decide if he was genius, good, average or just plain crap.
That's why I was so hopeful about The League of the Frightened Men. A book heralded by as differently-minded people as John Dickson Carr and H.R.F. Keating as one of the best mystery novels ever written sure had something special. Maybe it would be the turning point I had been waiting for all those years? Maybe I'd finally get, possibly share, the enthusiasm felt by so many readers?
As you can gather from the tone of this article, that epiphany didn't come. Frightened Men, as a matter of fact, just joined the long list of Rex Stout books I couldn't finish, and for the same reasons than the others.
My primary objection to the Wolfes, as I'd better label them since I haven't yet read any of Stout's non-series works, is about the formula. I don't object to formulas as such: only the outcome matters, and the outcome here is badly flawed in my view. Being an armchair detective as well as an eccentric curmudgeon, Nero Wolfe does almost nothing at all, and the "almost" - drinking beer, eating, looking after his orchids, dictating letters, giving orders and pushing his lips in and out - is not that enthralling. Another feature most harmful from a dramatical viewpoint is Wolfe's reluctance to leave his house but under nuclear threat, resulting in his summoning witnesses and suspects. Instances of the doorbell ringing, Fritz opening the door and announcing the visitor, he or she sitting in the red armchair and Wolfe asking nebulous questions make for a large, and to me rather tedious, part of the books. Not only does little actually happen, but it's astonishingly repetitive.
Fans will retort I'm bypassing what makes the books so fun: the witty dialogue, the wisecracking narration, the conflictual relation between Archie and Wolfe, but I'm not. I just happen to think they often drag the books down. There is no denying that Stout could write. The problem is he knew that, and too often left his gifts a free rein at the expanse of story progression or as a substitute for it. Much talk in the Wolves is padding - clever, highly enjoyable, but padding nevertheless. And since the world outside barely exists and most of the stories take place within the walls of the brownstone house, the books end reading like novelizations of plays.
The novellas tend to avoid those problems, however, and that's why I like them better as a rule: the plots are tighter and more varied, the routine takes a lesser place, and the writing benefits from the (relative) brevity. Stout's forte may have been that form rather than the novel, but the publishing industry being then what it still is now forced him into the latter. So sad.
All that being said, I haven't lost my faith in Stout and I have high hopes on the next I plan to read, Some Buried Caesar, which is said to be excellent on all counts. Then maybe I'll give a second chance to the books of his I gave up on, including Frightened Men. For now, however, I can't but shake my head, wondering why Carr put it, of all books, on his list, along with The Valley of Fear or Death on the Nile (well, he also included the dreadful S.S. Van Dine and his Greene Murder Case but hey, nobody's perfect)
Sometimes you really regret not to have a good medium among your acquaintances...
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