Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: The Rubber Band

In 1936 Rex Stout published the third of his Nero Wolfe stories...

The Rubber Band:
The Plot:
It's double duty for Wolfe and Archie as a previous client asks them to discover the truth when a beautiful employee of his company is charged with theft. Before the day is out, though, that employee, Clara Fox, would appear at the brownstone with a group in tow, wanting to hire Wolfe for another job!

Decades ago out west a band of rabble rousers led by "Rubber" Coleman saved the life of an Englishman. As payment the Englishman pledged a chunk of his fortune to the men when he came into it.

Clara's father was one of that band and now Clara thinks she's found the Englishman -- a visiting dignitary and British peer! Clara wants Wolfe to help her and her friends get the promised reward. Instead, the little group may get eternal rewards as members are murdered one-by-one.

Suddenly Wolfe finds himself with an abundance of concerns: protecting the life of his clients from an unknown killer, finding said killer and preventing Clara from being arrested by the police for theft, blackmail and murder!

My Take: Unlike with the previous two stories Stout hit the ground running with this one. Readers are quickly plunged into the drama of the office theft and then subsequently hit with murder and debt collection.

With Wolfe hiding Clara in the brownstone we get some of the clearest pictures of it's interior, it's staff, and how they operate. We also get to see a new side to Wolfe -- that of a reluctantly charming host.

Wolfe and Archie also spend a good portion of the book keeping the officers of law enforcement -- notably Inspector Cramer and Lt. Rowcliffe -- spinning in circles and generally just raising the ire of anyone affiliated with law enforcement. Wolfe and Archie's failure to be impressed by officials of the law shows an anti-establishment streak to the two characters that is always a delight to behold. Archie and Wolfe's run arounds with Cramer and his ilk are second only to Archie and Wolfe's bantering for humor and wit.

For all of the steam Cramer raises, though, Stout manages to keep the character fun and interesting, mostly by making it clear that, for his exasperation, Cramer still has respect for both Wolfe and Archie. It is hard to really hate Cramer nor see him as a buffoon but that doesn't mean it isn't great fun to see Wolfe and Archie pull a fast one on him. It's like watching Bugs Bunny get the better of Daffy Duck.

Not only does Stout keep the characters in motion, he also not only starts the story at a brisk pace he keeps it moving at a fairly speedy clip -- although not so fast as to lose the reader. He effortlessly juggles the carious plot points and the supporting characters here are roundly interesting and readable... with the exception of the British secretary Francis Horrocks. It's one thing to use one or two stereotypes for a character but it's something else to throw nearly every single one into the mix and then add a cod accent on top of it all. Stout was going for a bit of comedy here but it ends up with a character who is kind of insufferable to read. Especially for me since I have a lot of British friends and I know they're fairly tired of the American version of the British stereotype.

If you look at The Rubber Band as a whole you find that it's a mystery with a treasure hunt at the heart of it. Leave it to Rex Stout to give readers a treasure hunt story of an entirely different sort.

Even within the short span of three books there are certain things which readers come to expect from Stout: witty dialogue, engaging characters, impenetrable mysteries, twists, turns and surprises. This story delivers on all three.

My Favorite Quote of the Book: Well, I have to say that my favorite sequence is where a couple of cops manage to get past Archie at the front door and he retaliates by physically throwing them both out the door and down the front stairs. Since this isn't eactly a quote though I suppose I have to go with: Cramer got up too, saying to Hombert, "He's always like this. You might as well stick pins in a rhinoceros."


  1. Loved your review of what is one of my favorite Wolfe stories. I have to say, though, that I'm also a big fan of his second book, The League of Frightened Men. Having now read all the Wolfe stories at least a few times, League stands out as a unique take on whodunits. I hope you'll give it another chance. But thanks for reminding me what a great story Stout gave us in The Rubber Band.

  2. I don't think "League" is a bad book at all. It's just a little different. But as I go through the books I think that is one of Stout's strengths -- his Nero Wolfe stories are never exactly the same thing twice. While the core characters are always there the tone of the mysteries and the way the stories are presented always change.

    I think there is a lot that is fascinating in "League" it's just that Stout having the characters try to base it in hard psychology is suspect.

    If nothing else, I love "League" for showing how much Wolfe really cares about Archie. Wolfe is not only willing to leave the brownstone, he's willing to take a chance with his own life when he thinks Archie might be in danger. And Archie's reaction in return when he thinks Wolfe is in danger and possibly already dead says much about the strength of their friendship.