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?
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-- in that order. My expert fan friends may well be wincing now.
The Second Confession
More Deaths Than One
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
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?’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…
‘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.
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.
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.