LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Archie Goodwin is questioning a young woman who may have vital information. She is talking about a letter she received]
‘I went downstairs where I sleep and opened it.’
‘What did it say?’
She looked at me a moment without replying, and then suddenly she smiled, a funny smile that made me feel queer so that it wasn’t easy to look at her. But I kept my eyes on hers. Then she said: ‘I’ll show you what was in it, Mr Archie,’ and reached down and pulled her skirt up above her knee, shoved her hand down inside of her stocking, and brought it out again with something in it. I stared as she unrolled five $20 bills and spread them out for me to see…
[Later, Nero Wolfe talks to her]
‘… You still have the money?’
‘In your stocking?’
She pulled up her skirt and twisted her leg around and the bump was there.
Wolfe said: ‘Take it out.’ She unfastened the top of her stocking and reached inside and pulled out the twenties and unfolded them. Then she looked at me and smiled.
commentary: After we’d ‘done’ Rex Stout in the Tuesday Night Club, I asked his fans to recommend one more book of his to read. Of course my friends basically said ‘read all of them’ but Margot and Tracy AND KATHY D* all recommended starting at the beginning, so I went for this one, the first Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin book.
* added later after shameful omission
And here come stocking tops again – in a previous Stout post I commented on Dol Bonner hiding murderous gauntlets in her stockings, and referred back to the controversial stocking-tops in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage. There should be some scientific research on what exactly a young woman can hide in her legwear.
Stout introduces his characters well, and there is some excellent detection as they start with a missing Italian workman, and then find out which minor news item he may be connected with. Archie races around interviewing witnesses and trying to find out what went on. Wolfe makes his deductions then offers them to the enforcement agencies in an odd manner – there is a lot of toing and froing on bets and rewards.
The young woman above is a maid-of-all-work in the rooming house where the missing Italian lived: she is a great addition to the story in an elusive way.
The final third of the book is unexpected in several ways. Wolfe stages a violent fake ambush to frighten someone into talking, which frankly seems a bit much. And it becomes clear who the murderer must be – and the final resolution works out in an unusual way.
The book certainly gave an excellent flavour of the 1930s, with its depression-hit NY residents, the rooming-house, then the world of golf and university presidents upstate (Wolfe has no idea how golf works), the light aeroplanes and small airfields.
When interviewing the golf caddies for their detailed recollections, Wolfe says this:
Mr Goodwin has heard two of your stereotypes; I fancy the other two are practically identical. A stereotype is something fixed, something that harbours no intention of changing. I don’t expect you boys to change your stories of what happened on that first tee….---showing there’s been a real change in the meaning of the word ‘stereotype’.
I can well imagine that the arrival of this new book in 1935 must have been a big deal, even though the lucky readers wouldn’t have known how many books there would be, and that the series would last so many years.