The 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.