Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: The Red Box (1937)

The Plot: When a model for prestigious clothing designer Boyd McNair is poisoned a young friend of McNair's, Mr. Frost, hires Wolfe to find the killer... and to convince his cousin to stop modeling. Wolfe takes the job with much grumbling but soon finds it is not as straightforward as it appears.

McNair is the next to die but not before cryptically telling Wolfe the truth can be found in a Red Box. The search is on for the box with Wolfe and the police both vying for it in hopes of catching the killer. The stakes are high in this one -- love, money, truth and justice all hinge on Nero Wolfe's genius and one red box.

My Take: Out of all the stories I've read so far this one is the weakest. At least part of the solution is telegraphed fairly early on and the third murder skews into the realm of esoteric.

In addition to that the initial death which start the story is kicked to the curb and as the story goes on it is mentioned less and less. It makes the death feel like little more than a plot device and somewhat less than integrated into the whole. It is kindling for the fire and like kindling it is quickly burnt up and nothing left. That really isn't Stout's usual style.

The book does have a number of good points though. The supporting characters provide comedy, tragedy and pathos and the young Miss Frost does quite a bit of growing up over the course of the story. The character Gebert also becomes fascinating. My attitudes toward Gebert in particular changed over the course of the story. At first I thought him merely a slimy, middle aged letch, then as one of those annoying people who think themselves funnier than they actually are and finally as a quite intelligent and tough individual who has become disillusioned and jaded with life but tries to hide how are he's sunk behind a sardonic mask. I ended up with a grudging respect for him and that change in attitude toward the character is a testament to Stout's skill.

There is also the humor of seeing Wolfe out of his element as he is convinced to leave his brownstone for a while, the usual witty banter between Archie and Wolfe and a little tweaking of the nose of Inspector Cramer and the police.

The Red Box isn't a bad story, far from it and in point of fact I have yet to encounter one of Stout's Wolfe stories that is outright bad (although it's still early days in my reading through the corpus), but it isn't the best one I've encountered so far. The murdered are uneven and some of the outcomes are easy to figure out. The wealth of characters in the book are what truly make it worth the time to read, though and time spent with Stout's characters is never time wasted.

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