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
[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?’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.
‘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.’
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
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.
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…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.
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’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.