REX STOUT. The League of Frightened Men (1935).

03 Jun

LeagueFrightMen.jpgThe eponymous “league” consists of about two dozen Harvard men who, back in 1909, engaged in a hazing episode that left one of their classmates crippled not only in body, but also (it now appears) in spirit. A quarter-century later, two men from the group die in possibly homicidal circumstances, a third member goes missing—and the surviving members begin to suspect that the victim of their long-ago high-jinks, a novelist named Paul Chapin, has targeted them all for vengeance. Letters to some of them, written in verse and in what appears to be Chapin’s style, turn their guilt-edged suspicion into cold-blooded fright. That’s the situation when the gargantuan man of pure thought Nero Wolfe and the nimble man of action Archie Goodwin take up the case, with Goodwin also taking up the duty of narrating the affair (it’s the second of their published adventures) in his usual wised-up way. Their investigation twists this way and then that way, but never strays far from a focus on the haunted and haunting personality of Chapin. After the murder of another old classmates of Chapin’s, Wolfe gleans the last bit of information that he needs to pinpoint a killer. Thus, by banishing the fear that had brought his clients to him, Wolfe effectively dissolves their league, and for his trouble he collects a huge fee that suits both his outsized needs and his outsized talents.

Some critics rate this densely layered tale as the best entry in the entire Wolfe corpus, and perhaps rightly so. The puzzle that Wolfe picks apart is one of the most adroitly constructed problems that Stout ever set for him. Behind it, moreover, is a tragic back story whose human dimensions—including the existential mystery that is Paul Chapin—span a wider range than Stout typically tried to cover. Still, the latter element fits awkwardly within the essentially comic world that Wolfe and Goodwin inhabit. In their later outings, not surprisingly, Stout rarely allows any other character to share the narrative spotlight that he shines warmly and narrowly upon them.


Posted by on June 3, 2011 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


11 responses to “REX STOUT. The League of Frightened Men (1935).

  1. Yvette

    June 3, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    I like the concise nature of your review. I wish I could do this sort of thing. My own reviews are often over-wordy, but I can’t seem to help myself. :)

    I enjoyed reading this. While THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN is not my most favorite Wolfe, it’s still a favorite. I’ve lately been on a Wolfe binge, rereading the ones I like best. I do this every few years. I never seem to get tired of visiting with Wolfe and Archie at the Manhattan brownstone.

    I love to see that others are reading and enjoying Wolfe as well.

  2. Mike

    June 3, 2011 at 1:26 PM

    Well, my reviews have gotten longer over the years! I find it harder and harder to “write tight,” especially about books that I like. (I actually wrote this piece on “Frightened Men” a few years ago; the reviews that appear on the blog are ones that I cull more or less randomly from old notes.)

    I’m not a terribly big Wolfe & Goodwin fan, largely because Stout’s plotting usually disappoints me. But there’s no question that the series counts as excellent “comfort reading.” (I think that the novelet-length tales usually work best, by the way.)

  3. Yvette

    June 5, 2011 at 10:39 AM

    Meant to add that this particular cover is a favorite of mine as well.

    I can’t agree about the novelette, though some are very good. The two in NOT QUITE DEAD ENOUGH are stand-outs in my admittedly faulty memory. These take place while Archie was serving in the army as a sort of liaison between Wolfe and Army intelligence.

    I wish that some of the full length novels were longer still. Yeah, occasionally the plotting has a few holes in it, but mostly it all works for me. :)

  4. George Kelley

    June 10, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    Rex Stout is being reprinted in omnibus volumes. My favorite Nero Wolfe is THE GOLDEN SPIDERS.

  5. Richard

    June 10, 2011 at 1:22 PM

    One I have read! Yes, it’s a good one, but there are several other good ones too, including those with villain Arnold Zeck. I’m just now in the process of reading a few Wolfe’s myself. Those omnibus volumes, two books per, aren’t very far along the path to reprinting all 72 stories, I’m afraid, but they are welcome and we can hope they keep on coming.

  6. Evan Lewis

    June 10, 2011 at 6:24 PM

    Great book. The first book, Fer-de-Lance, didn’t really grab me, but this one turned me into a Wolfe fan.

  7. Mike

    June 11, 2011 at 10:31 AM

    George, Richard, Evan ..

    Thanks for the comments. Over the years, I’ve noted that other folks rate “The Golden Spiders” highly, although I haven’t read that one myself. (I’m pretty sure that the A&E Wolfe TV series, with Maury Chaykin and Tim Hutton, dramatized it–and, as I recall, it was a good story, well done.) I also have not read any books in the Zeck trilogy, so I guess that I really need to do some remedial reading on this front. That said, I have read “Fer-de-Lance,” and I agree with Evan that it doesn’t make for a very good intro to the Nero and Archie saga.

  8. Yvette

    June 13, 2011 at 5:02 PM

    Mike, if you haven’t already, you might want to try: PLOT IT YOURSELF and MURDER BY THE BOOK. Two of my very favorite Wolfe and Archie books. Of course, there’s also: WHERE THERE’S A WILL, PRISONER’S BASE, OVER MY DEAD BODY, BEFORE MIDNIGHT, THE DOORBELL RANG and HOMICIDE TRINITY…to name just an additional few. :)

  9. Mike

    June 13, 2011 at 5:48 PM

    Thanks for the book recommendations, Yvettte. I’ve read “Prisoner’s Base,” and I quite enjoyed it. I’ve been meaning to read “The Doorbell Rang” for a while now, because it famously pivots (or so I gather) around a confrontation between Wolfe and J. Edgar Hoover. I agree with you, by the way, that the two tales in “Not Quite Dead Enough” are especially strong.

  10. helenofmarlowe

    October 5, 2012 at 6:55 PM

    This one bothers me more than any of the others (I’ve read most) because at the end, it looks as though Wolfe is willing to let the wrong man take the blame, and he only reveals the true murderer when it looks as though he might lose his fee.

    • Mike

      October 6, 2012 at 10:39 AM

      Thanks for your comment, Helen. Somewhat embarrassingly, I suppose, I don’t remember that aspect of the ending. (Even though I put a high premium on whether a detective novel has a strong and ideally twist-laden conclusion, I almost always forget the ending a few weeks after I’ve finished the book!) In any case, your point does bear on something that I’ve noticed about the Nero Wolfe books, which is that there’s a dark side to them: As cozy as the world within the old brownstone might be, Wolfe can be remarkably heartless about the world outside it.


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