Monday, October 11, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: The League of Frightened Men

And moving on with my proposed attempt to read and review my way through Rex Stout's entire run of Nero Wolfe stories here is the second book in the series, published in 1935...

The League of Frightened Men
The Plot:
Years ago a group of Harvard students forced a fellow student, Paul Chapin, into a stunt. An accidental fall left Chapin crippled for life and left the others emotionally scarred. They vowed to make sure Chapin wanted for nothing and called themselves privately "the League of Atonement".

Now Chapin is a successful if controversial novelist. When two members of the League die nothing seems amiss to the authorities but the other League members receive threat letters after each death and believe Chapin is a killer.

When a third member goes missing, presumed dead, Wolfe steps in for a very hefty fee. Has Wolfe, however, met his match in the brilliant Chapin? Can he stop the man from killing again? Wolfe believes he can snare Chapin but is he really on the right track or will the great detective fail?

My Take: As with the first book some of the cultural references go whizzing by overhead, rendered somewhat irrelevant by the passage of time. Also, as with Fer-de-Lance this book is a slow burn. There is much time spent on the League, it's members, their lives, and of course Paul Chapin and his situation. Stout holds the readers' interest, though, by dint of keeping Wolfe and Archie (and through them the reader) busy contemplating three possible murders all the while trying to protect the remaining League members from a fatal attack which could come at any time and in any form.

There is also a sudden twist that comes as the end would seem to be in sight. This twist throws open what has gone before to new interpretation and causes the reader to change ideas as well as change sympathies to a certain degree. Stout, however, with an already sure writing style, never allows any of these changes to seem unnecessarily jarring or simply tacked onto the plot in order to bump the page count.

There are some areas, though, where time has not been as kind to the book. Much of the psychology that Wolfe and his clients bandy about seems rather suspect now -- particularly considering all of the advances the field of psychology has made over the decades. Readers also meet more of an unsavory side to Archie Goodwin. Goodwin's use of the term "lop" (for lopsided) in relation to Paul Chapin is distasteful to the modern reader. The reaction Wolfe shows to it -- which is to take Archie to task for using it -- implies that Stout put the term in exactly for that reason -- to demonstrate to readers that Archie is rather uncouth -- but even at that the word grates on the spine. Thankfully it is used sparingly.

Overall, the good points far outweigh the few bad ones here. The story has more twists and turns than a Rubik's Cube and shocks and drama keep readers at the edge of their seats once the story cranks up speed. Wolfe's psychology may be shaky after the passage of time by Stout's psychology of knowing exactly how to thrill readers still holds fast today.

Favorite Quote: Wolfe: "I'm really not much good at negotiation, I am too blunt. It is a shortcoming of temperament not to be overcome. For instance, my proposal to you. I can only present it and say, take it or leave it. I compensate for the handicap by making the proposal so attractive that it cannot very well be refused."

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