Saturday, October 18, 2014

Rex Stout’s The Red Box

The Red Box was the fourth of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe murder mysteries. It was published in 1937. While they are fine examples of golden age detective fiction the biggest attraction of the Nero Wolfe books is quite definitely Nero Wolfe himself - he is one of the most deliriously outrageous of all fictional detectives. He is so outrageous that he is in danger of self-parody but this is a danger that Stout manages to avoid.

The Red Box includes one element of which I’m extremely fond and that is found in quite a few golden age detective tales - a bizarre and outlandish murder method. There are actually three murders in the book and all three are somewhat outlandish but it’s the third that really delighted me. I’m certainly not going to spoil it but I will mention that it involves adhesive tape and as Wolfe points out it’s a remarkably economical murder method, involving an outlay of around fifteen cents.

The first of the three murders involves a box of candy. Boxes of chocolate were quite a popular way of murdering people in golden age detective stories. In this case it is fortunate  that the candy selection involved did not include caramels. Had it included caramels Nero Wolfe’s task might have been made even more difficult.

Stout throws in plenty of standard crime fiction ingredients. There’s an eccentric will. There’s a mystery with its roots in the past. There’s more than one suspect with a secret to hide. The ingredients are expertly blended and the results are delicious.

Nero Wolfe is at his idiosyncratic best. This case begins with an event that is not quite unprecedented but certainly very unusual - Wolfe actually leaves his West 35th Street brownstone to visit the scene of the crime. In a nice piece of symmetry a later scene of the crime will come to visit West 35th Street. 

As usual Wolfe and his indefatigable assistant Archie Goodwin will spend a good deal of time trying to avoid offering too much cooperation to the police. 

Archie will also have to deal with a relapse by Wolfe, although in this case he manages to head it off before too much harm is done and too much time is lost. A great deal of beer will be consumed by Nero Wolfe. Of course we never doubt that Wolfe will solve the mystery but in order to get the necessary proof he will have to take a considerable chance, relying on an elaborate and risky bluff.

I’ve been reading the Nero Wolfe novels in sequence (in other words in publication order). I’m not sure that there’s any real necessity to read them that way. It’s more of a personal whim.

The Red Box is a treat for golden age detective fans. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Critic Edmund Wilson cited this one in his "explanation" of why he hated detective stories. I think something was definitely off with that boy; he was probably REALLY popular at parties. (Not.)