Forgotten Books: The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout

8 Jul

Stout-LOFM-1Today on the Forgotten Book series is Rex Stout Day. I thought I’d play along this time with what is, to date, my only foray into the world of Nero Wolfe. This is a review from February 2010. If you go back and read the comments from the original post, you can see readers tell me all sorts of other books to try that are better. I haven’t so far, but that doesn’t mean I won’t at some point in the future. Reading James Reasoner’s entry today (Some Buried Caesar, the same book fellow author David Cranmer recommended to me six years ago) may have sparked renewed interest.


I tried. I really did. With a renewed interest in traditional mysteries, I gave Nero Wolfe another go. I re-read the Sherlock Holmes novels in December and I’ve been working through the short stories in January so I thought coming back to Nero Wolfe now would be a good thing. You see, when I read the first Nero Wolfe story—Fer-de-Lance—I was in the midst of reading a lot of hard-boiled stories. As such, I didn’t think much of it. Now, with an idea of what Nero Wolfe really is, I decided to read the second book in the series, The League of Frightened Men.

In short, it might be my last. I just don’t get how these books are so popular. The set-up for League is at least intriguing. Well, if you overlook how it all started. Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (his Watson) are hanging around the brownstone when Archie points out an article in the newspaper. The author, Paul Chapin, a man who walks with a cane, is on trial for obscenity. The two men argue then Wolfe sends for a copy of the book in question. He reads it overnight and then tells Archie that a man named Andrew Hibbard had contacted Wolfe recently about a case. Hibbard wants protection from a man he didn’t name. After reading Chapin’s novel, Wolfe deduces that Hibbard fears none other than Chapin. Now, Hibbard himself has gone missing.

The reason Chapin is now lame is because of a college hazing prank. Chapin got injured and the rest of the college gang feel sorry for him. They name themselves the League of Atonement and give Chapin pity and recompense these last twenty years. After Wolfe has tracked down most of the members of the League, he learns that the group thinks Chapin is not only responsible for the deaths of two of their number as well as the Hibbard disappearance, but also the poem they each received all but claiming retribution against them all was written by Chapin. Got that? Well, it’s a bit flimsy to hang a story on and it didn’t get much better the longer the story progressed.

Archie as Narrator is the absolute best thing about this book (and the one previous). His wit, world view, and doggedness could easily carry his own series of stories. And I’d devour those in a heartbeat. But he defers to his boss, Wolfe, all the time. Moreover, Wolfe can be an ass. I understand that’s part of his “charm” and Holmes, too, can be abrupt. But Wolfe seems, at least in this book, to relish his brusqueness. At one point, he commends Archie for sound logic but then chastises him for being completely wrong. It made me want to reach into the book and slap Wolfe on the face hopefully with a glass of beer in his hand.

When you read a hard-boiled story or watch an action movie, boredom is something you don’t usually experience. Even your standard hour-long television crime drama can sweep you along without the need for gun play or violence. I can get behind that kind of storytelling. However, this entry in the Nero Wolfe canon bored me. I got to where I didn’t care who the culprit was. I didn’t care what type of logic Wolfe used to expose the bad guy. With Holmes stories, the great detective knows things we don’t know and then presents them in a big, and usually satisfying denouement. Not here. I listened to this one on audio (8 CDs) and I had to struggle to get through it. You know, face Houston traffic with or without the audiobook. There were afternoons where silence won.

I’ve read all about how famous Wolfe and Goodwin are in the greater corpus of mystery literature. I understand why some folks appreciate these characters. Heck, I’d love to see Wolfe go to the sanitarium and keep Archie, Fritz the Butler/Cook, and Saul Panzer, one of the PIs Wolfe hires out. Those would be books I’d read. I’m not sure I’ll get to another Wolfe book. Wait, actually, I will. David Cranmer, a fan of Nero Wolfe and his creator, Rex Stout, has asked me to read his favorite, Some Buried Caesar, before I make a final judgment on Wolfe and Goodwin. This I shall do. Just not anytime soon.

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