Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Tuesday Night Club: A Crime Against Rex Stout





TNC Rex Stout
The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a loose group of crime fiction fans choosing a new author to write about each month – Rex Stout is our January centre of attraction. New and occasional writers always welcome to join in – just send one of us the link to your piece. Last week’s Stout blogposts are collected at Noah Stewart’s blog here.


 
Around 25 years ago I was interested in reading some Rex Stout, and the helpful people at Penguin Crime had put out something called the First Rex Stout Omnibus, three books, so that was just the job, wasn’t it?
 
Omnibus


The answer is NO.


First of all, you might think it would contain the first three Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe books? No, not at all, three books from different phases. Well, that might be all right. But….

The three books are:
The Doorbell Rang
The Second Confession
More Deaths Than One

-- in that order. My expert fan friends may well be wincing now.

They are in reverse order of publication – so read in the normal way, starting at book 1 and moving forwards, you go backwards in time. References to the other books crop up all the time, to a spoiler-esque degree. (Though Rex Stout does also – so far as I can tell – openly give the name of the killer in one of his other books himself…) 

In addition, books 2 and 3 in this collection are actually part of a trilogy (of course, 3 is the first, 2 is the second….): they are the Zeck books, involving an arch-criminal who is not defeated till another book, not of course in this omnibus edition.

This all became, eventually, obvious when I was reading them first time round, and I remembered it clearly and read the books in the correct order when I re-read for this meme – though this was still not easy to do, I had to keep checking the dates, and of course when you are reading a random 200 page section within a longer book, it is quite difficult not to ever catch sight of the wrong page.

So much for the great minds at Penguin Crime – had they even read the books they shoved together so casually? I consider this a crime against Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe.

And now, on to the books. I will start with the earliest by date (and so, yes I know I am hammering this home, the last one in the volume.)

More Deaths Than One by Rex Stout

US title: And Be a Villain

Published 1948

The story deals with a murder during a radio show, and I very much enjoyed all the details of the 1940s broadcasting. Stout himself had considerable experience of giving radio talks, so this all seemed very authentic – though very different from British radio of the day. Madeline Fraser is a hugely successful personality, who interviews famous guests on her show. There is a soft drinks firm sponsoring the programme, and a guest who sips some of the delicious Starlite drops dead, poisoned. But was the doctored drink actually meant for someone else?

The whole thing – sponsorship and a talk show with a major female personality as host – would have been unthinkable in the UK at that time. It’s explained that Miss Fraser appeals to the housewives who will buy the products advertised – perhaps this is a case where the puritanical, non-commercial face of the BBC held back the cause of women.

There is a rather charming young teenage fan, Nancylee who uses strange language, including saying something is ‘frizoo’ – a word that Stout seems to have made up, there are no references to it anywhere else. Nancylee is entranced by the new hat Fraser is wearing during the broadcast –
‘Did you help with the bottles that Tuesday?’
‘No because I was looking at the new hat Miss Fraser had on…. Miss Fraser’s hat was really something for the preview. Utterly first run! It had - '
‘I believe you.’ Wolfe’s voice sharpened a little.

The idea of wearing a hat to do a radio show is so very 1948, and so very much not now, that I had to use this marvellous picture, from the US National Archives, which shows a radio broadcast from the White House. The seated woman in the middle is Margaret Truman, daughter of then-President Harry S Truman. What a very fine collection of hats, all utterly first run…

 
Rex Stout week 2 b


In truth, the investigation sags in the middle while nothing much seems to happen, and two aspects of the solution seemed – predictable: one from reading a lot of Agatha Christie, and one from my more limited knowledge of Stout. I may have been unlucky, it may have been coincidence, but the murderers in several of my forays into his work have had something in common. I can say no more.

 
Rex Stout week 2 a

This picture is from a favourite resource – the William P Gottlieb collection at the Library of Congress. It is actually a singer called June Christy, but looked very much as Nancylee the teenage fan (is she a bobby-soxer?) would have looked.
 
And remember - be sure to avoid this particular edition of the books at all costs.
 




























14 comments:

  1. Thanks for the warning about the penguin edition. It is annoying that they don't always put books in sequential order. A similar problem happened with me with Catherine Aird as I have a couple of omnibus editions of her work and neither them contain novels in sequential order and the book choices themselves move around a lot within the series.

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    1. It's infuriating isn't it? I find it so hard to imagine the mindset of someone putting together an omnibus without either the interest or knowledge to get it right.

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  2. Moira, I think a Rex Stout omnibus is just what I need to start reading the author. I'm not particularly fussy about the order of books though I'd certainly like to begin with the first novel.

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    1. Prashant, I agree with you - it's a great way to get into a new author, particularly if you are getting a bargain. But I think they should be clear about order...

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  3. I can't imagine why they'd have put the stories in reverse order, Moira! That makes no sense to me at all! Little wonder you were so annoyed about that. Still, I do like the way this one portrays the power of radio at that time. So many people, especially young people, aren't really aware of just how much impact it had.

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    1. That's a good point about the radio Margot, I'm sure you're right that young people can't really appreciate its importance back in the day. (I still think it's important, of course, and always will be.)

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  4. It is strange about that edition, to put them in the book out of order, and especially when two of them are linked. To be honest, I am sure the first time I read the books and maybe the second, I just read what was available from the library and never noticed the time frame. It was until later that I read them all in order. And I don't know when I realized there was a trilogy about Wolfe's nemesis Zeck. I loved all three of the books in the trilogy but I am easy to please when it comes to Rex Stout. I did especially love the parts about the radio show. I have thought of reading the trilogy again in order, but then I find others before that I want to reread.

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    1. I'm often not that bothered, Tracy, but in this case reading one after another it was infuriating! I still haven't read the final Zeck book. I am enjoying re-reading some of the Rex Stout books now - I can see why you like them so much.

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  5. Moira: Am I correct that the future crime fiction writer, Margaret, is not actually wearing a hat? I know she was an independent woman.

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    1. I looked very closely and couldn't decide if she was being a rebel (or hatless because hostess?) or if she had a tiny hat perched on the back of her head. She certainly had an interesting life, it was well worth a look on Wikipedia.

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  6. The photo of the women with hats with Margaret Truman sent me scurrying to solve the mystery of "The Woman Without the Hat."
    My conclusion: Margaret Truman considered the White House home; her parents were living in it at the time. Maybe she was, too.
    So, it was home to her -- no need to wear a hat. The other
    women were guests. Several are wearing jackets as well as hats, but she isn't.
    I realize that I read the book you just read and also "The Doorbell Rang," one of my favorites in the Nero Wolfe series. He aggravates the FBI, and apparently the FBI investigated Stout because of that book, for one reason.

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    1. Thanks Kathy, well thoughtout and I'm sure you're right. Look out for Doorbell next week!

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  7. Don't worry I won't be rushing to buy this one!

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