Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Rex Stout and Politics



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. 

The Stout blogposts are collected at Noah Stewart’s blog – here are last week’s links.

Last week I explained how I started my Stout reading many years ago with an omnibus edition which turned out to be horribly badly-designed. But the books themselves were highly enjoyable, well worth a re-read. And made me think quite a lot about Stout’s political views. I dealt with the earliest book last week: these are the other two.

 
The Second Confession by Rex Stout

published 1949
 

 
Rex Stout week 3 a

[Archie Goodwin has joined a houseparty in pursuit of an investigation]

There was a knock on my door and I said come in. It opened and Madeline entered and advanced, enveloped in a thin white film of folds that started at her breast and stopped only at her ankles. It made her face smaller and her eyes bigger.

‘How do you like my dress, Archie?’ she asked…

[after a short conversation…] It was the combination of circumstances. She was so close and the smell of roses was so strong…

After a minute or two, she pushed at me, I let her go…

‘You darned fool’ she said… ‘Look at my dress now.’
 
commentary: A very wealthy businessman has asked Nero Wolfe to get the dirt on his daughter’s undesirable boyfriend, and Archie has gone to the family house to try to do exactly that.

A fairly standard plotline of the era, but it’s the nature of the dirt that is really fascinating. James Spurling believes that his future son-in-law is a secret Communist. He wants proof of that: he believes that this will stop his daughter from marrying him – Gwenn finds Communism ‘intellectually contemptible and morally unsound.’ Spurling checks that Wolfe and Goodwin have the right views:
‘By the way, what about you and Goodwin?’
‘We agree with your daughter.’ Wolfe looked at me [ie Archie]. ‘Don’t we?’
I nodded. ‘Completely. I like the way she put it. The best I can do is “a Commie is a louse” or something like that.’

This is all particularly interesting in that Rex Stout was very active politically, and would be viewed by many (and would probably have described himself) as a left-wing liberal. He was drawing a very clear line in the sand in this book: his brand of left-wing politics does not involve any form of communism. He was a supporter of the idea of a federal world government, and was strongly anti-fascist.

The communist plot strand is, of course, more complicated than it seems, and Stout uses it to the full. He talks about the Henry Wallace presidential campaign, and front organizations. A Communist Party membership card is key to the plot - it is hidden and must be searched for and then photographed: this is serious business, and there are some very tense scenes involving senior officials of the Communist Party. I found the book a very good read. And the title is very clever.

Picture of white dress from the Clover Vintage tumblr
 
 
The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout

published 1965

commentary: So this one is a good 15 years later than the other two books in my omnibus - a reference to someone (a woman!) with ‘enough hair for a Beatle’ jumped out at me. As it happens, the action takes place in January so it felt right to be reading it now.

And this is a very political book. It was described at the time as ‘an anti-FBI diatribe’ – that was meant as a dismissive remark, but it just seems factual really. Nero Wolfe is hired by someone who thinks the FBI has it in for her – a wealthy woman, she sent out 10,000 copies of a book called The FBI Nobody Knows (which is a real non-fiction book, by Fred J Cook, highly critical of the organization – The Doorbell Rang gets very meta at times.)

No-one is in any doubt that she is absolutely correct, and the FBI are out to get her. When Wolfe and Goodwin take on the case, the FBI aims to get them too. There is a murder, and the plot and the investigation are very cleverly done indeed.

 
Rex Stout week 3 b
 
This is from the Wikipedia page on The Doorbell Rang:
The Doorbell Rang generated controversy when it was published, due largely to its unflattering portrayal of the FBI, its director and agents. It was published at a time when the public's attitude toward the FBI was turning critical…
Stout had been under FBI surveillance since the beginning of his writing career….About one hundred pages in Stout's file are devoted to the novel, the FBI's panicky response to it and the attempt to retaliate against the author for writing it. The FBI's internal memorandum for its special agents told them that "the bureau desires to contribute in no manner to the sales of this book by helping to make it the topic of publicity." Orders came from headquarters in Washington that any questions concerning the book should be forwarded to the Crime Records Division, thereby putting book and author in a criminal category.
I thought the whole book was immensely complex and tangled – and very good, very tense and exciting and full of surprises. One of the best ones comes right at the end, when you find out what the title means.

I’d be very interested to find out what my fellow Stout fans think and know about his political leanings.

The picture shows J Edgar Hoover (the long-time head of the FBI) being interviewed by Senator George Mathers in the 1960s: Hoover (on the left) is talking about the threat posed to the USA by Communism.































28 comments:

  1. I've always liked the way that Stout was able to discuss politics in his stories without making you feel he was trying to 'convert.' I think he wove it in brilliantly, and you've chosen some good examples of that, Moira. To me, it's the fact that his focus was on the plots and the character interactions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a very good description, Margot - thanks. And yes, he did do great characters and dialogue.

      Delete
  2. I was reading recently about the Nero Wolfe books having political opinions (somewhere). As far as that goes, I prefer the ones where it just comes up briefly in conversations. But both of these books are memorable and very good. Well structured and with interesting characters. I think the attitude towards Communism bothered me every time I read The Second Confession and I don't know why. But I can overlook anything in a Nero Wolfe book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes it is quite weird isn't it? I couldn't quite make sense of the extreme reaction. But I did very much enjoy both books.

      Delete
  3. The Doorbell Rang is my absolute favorite Stout book. It's got it all--a tricky plot, great Archie-Nero dialogue, good supporting characters, and a certain "gravitas" because we're talking about the FBI here. I read it every 2 or 3 years.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by, Joe, and the more I think about it the more I agree with you. I can't stop thinking about the book since I finished readin it, and it does have a very readable quality.

      Delete
  4. These two sound quite good, but I'll take a pass. No photos of Hoover in a dress?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wouldn't that have been the perfect Clothes in book illo? I wish....

      Delete
  5. I think you hit the nail on the head describing Stout's politics. He promoted free speech here and wrote anti-fascist tracts for the W.W.II effort.
    I think he was a liberal, but that he also vacillated in his views.
    I was surprised to see that he supported the Vietnam war, as least as reported by Wikipedia. That war was very unpopular here, as was the draft. There was an enormous anti-war movement here with people from all over the country, varying political views, professions and communities.

    There were demonstrations constantly, local and national. And lots of activities aimed against the draft with soldiers burning draft cards, throwing away medals, speaking out, going to Canada or Europe.

    So, I find Stout's views on the war to have been quite inconsistent with those of progressives, liberals, leftists, etc. So, I'd say he was an inconsistent liberal.

    I still enjoy his books and Wolfe, Goodwin and their staff and other detectives. Dialogue is great. And The Doorbell Rang is one of my favorites in the series.

    Also, I could say that at times Wolfe's and Goodwin's attitudes on women needed some enlightenment. And there is some racism that needed correcting.

    One note: My father and uncle campaigned for Henry Wallace.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Kathy - that's very interesting. Yes, Stout's view seem to have been somewhat all over the place, and he doesn't fit in with modern ideas on women and racism. But still a great writer and most enjoyable.
      Very interesting about your family and Wallace - I looked him up after reading that (he's not really familiar to the Brits...) and also read someone saying that the Wallace candidacy 'set the cause of the American Left back by 20 years'. Fighting words...?

      Delete
  6. A thin, white film of folds that started at her breast and stopped at her ankle?

    HAS to be Madame Gres. Something like this, perhaps?

    http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O17899/evening-dress-gres-madame/

    Gres loved her pleats and folds - there's no shortage of white pleated Gres dresses out there to find, though I couldn't find any from 1949 to match the book date. (the one above is 1955)

    Here's a miniature dress by her though - around 1950, so close enough? http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O130977/miniature-evening-ensemble-gres-madame/

    ReplyDelete
  7. Maybe Balenciaga.

    https://www.pinterest.com/pin/197876977347139264/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is one amazing dress Shay! Not one that everyone could get away with...

      Delete
  8. These are gorgeous, thank you - I hope all readers will go and take a look. Stout was married to a fashion textile designer - I found out last week from a reader and have been looking it up. It makes sense - he's not always big on what people wear, but has sudden flashes of knowledge and expertise that perhaps have come from Mrs Stout.
    My picture was far too stiff, but it was all I could find from the right era.
    I just keep looking at the pics you linked to. So fabulous.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I wonder who said that about Henry Wallace's campaign. Many people supported him who were liberals and among the left and its organizations. I've heard about his campaign throughout my life from many quarters, including from progressive college professors.

    Stout's political inconsistencies don't keep me from enjoying his books. I gloss over the views of women (Wolfe won't allow women to stay overnight and he's always flummoxed talking to women. Archie is a womanizer; that's another story.), although some of my women friends won't read his books. On the racism, I don't give him a pass on that, but I think he changed as the Civil Rights Movement developed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was the very left-leaning Christopher Hitchens - a writer I like very much, but would never think he had the last word to say on any particular subject. He always wanted to be controversial.
      I think we all have to decide for ourselves exactly how much leeway we will give to writers reflecting the times they live in. I think the kind of mad notions Wolfe has about women is NOT the same as someone saying they shouldn't have rights or the vote. And a person can decide who enters their house...

      Delete
  10. I had no idea about the political background. You have made me really want to read this, Moira!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am really understanding the attraction of Rex Stout - the background relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin is a delight, and then he did so many different things with the crime content - very traditional mysteries, and then these unexpected political sorties too.

      Delete
  11. Stout always struck me as politically progressive. In TOO MANY COOKS he has Wolfe treat the coloured staff with decency and respect, which is what I tend to take from the book rather than the racial slurs from the lips some of the other characters. A RIGHT TO DIE from 1964 was also very controversial for the time, with its Civil Rights background.

    I rather like the fact that Stout's views were inconsistent. I remember John Mortimer complaining that with a lot of people if you knew their opinion about one thing, then you could pretty much guess what their opinions would be about everything else.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a very good point about consistency, it does make life more interesting doesn't it? I haven't read enough to have strong opinions on Stout, but I do intend to carry on reading more...

      Delete
  12. Interesting that Hitchens said that about Henry Wallace. Many progressives in the U.S. didn't or don't agree with him on that, no one I've known over the years.
    Yes, he was inconsistent politically and I kind of wrote him off when he supported the Iraq war, which was opposed by U.S. progressives of all stripes.

    Of course anyone has the right to decide who stays in their house. It's the attitude toward women that Wolfe has which is both maddening and hilarious. He has anxiety when women are in his house. He gets flummoxed. He doesn't always respect their explanations -- but he wouldn't have been against the vote or equal rights. No. But this is a fictional character we are discussing, so the question is what Stout thought. He evolved, I think. But as I said, some women friends won't read the books as they are
    offended -- but that's their right, too.

    None of this stops me from enjoying the books, but I do not like the racist language in a few books. Archie is awful, too, but Wolfe doesn't repeat the language. But I don't know Stout's personal opinions.

    I go by Lena Horne's friendship with him and an introduction she wrote to one of his books.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Kathy that's very informative, and I will bear all this in mind as I carry on reading the Wolfe books...

      Delete
  13. See if you can find the edition of "Champagne for One," with Lena Horne's introduction.

    And thank you for hosting such an informative and interesting blog.

    ReplyDelete
  14. And another asset of the Wolfe/Goodwin books not mentioned earlier: They are de-stressors! Get a cup of tea, snacks, and open a book and vanish into the New York brownstone> Smile, even laugh and forget the global and local news, the tasks to be done -- and just read and relax.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Excellent point Kathy, you make it so inviting...

      Delete
  15. Just read The Doorbell Rang on your recommendation, Moira, and really enjoyed it. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh good, glad you liked it! Such a responsibility, recommending things, isn't it?

      Delete