Friday, March 8, 2013

Friday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Books: ALPHABET HICKS (1941) by Rex Stout


This is my first encounter with a non-Nero Wolfe book by Rex Stout. I was a little leery at first - would I miss Wolfe and Archie too much to concentrate on this other detecting hero with admittedly, a very catchy name?

(Those of you who didn't know that Stout wrote other stuff besides the Wolfe and Archie books, yeah he did. See, Rex Stout was a genius - he could do just about anything and did.)

I've read every Nero Wolfe book and re-read my favorites all the time. A habit I can't seem to break. It's all about the jaunty (and often very funny) chatter between Archie and just about everyone else in the world. It's the whodunit plots, the coziness of the brownstone, the inventive character names, the thousand orchids up on the roof, the welcome aura of a world long gone and the general all purpose misogyny of Nero Wolfe, the genius detective whom I adore.

Wolfe and Archie were born (created) to be together for all time and even now I think of them living in that brownstone on Manhattan's West Side, continuing to solve murders and whatnot - suspended in time. An idea that always makes me smile.

But the answer to the original question - would I miss them too much to read anything else by Rex Stout? The answer is: Nope, didn't miss them at all.

But before you shout, 'Fickle, fickle!' Let me just say in my defense that I can't help it if Stout was that terrific a writer. I was not even surprised by how much I enjoyed ALPHABET HICKS. Even if I did figure out early on who the killer was.

Alphabet Hicks is a disbarred lawyer kicked from the ranks of the law for telling the truth and damning the consequences. He now drives a taxi cab and solves crimes - sounds like a good plan to me. He's a big guy with a gruff appearance whom everyone refers to as 'Hicks' - well, you could hardly call him 'Alphabet'.

The reason for Hicks' unorthodox moniker is his tricky business card. The card simply states his name followed by a group of non-sensical letters the meaning of which is left up to Hicks to interpret (differently each time) when asked what the letters stand for.

'Vail took a step, "Who are you?"

The other took a wallet from his pocket, fished out a card, and offered it. Vail took it and looked at it: A. Hicks, M.S.O.T.P.B.O.M.

He looked up, unsmiling. "This-this hash?"

The other gestured it away. "Unimportant. One of my titles. Melancholy Spectator of the Psychic Belly-ache of Mankind. The name is Hicks."

Hicks is a philosopher. Odd for a lawyer, but maybe not for a disbarred one.

The Plot:

Hicks in his role as taxi driver is recognized by a fare, Mrs. Judith Dundee. She impulsively hires him on the spot to figure out what is wrong with her husband. He's been acting completely unlike himself lately - accusing her of selling company secrets to the enemy and claiming he has incontrovertible proof. She denies the accusation and Hicks sort of believes her. Need I add that she is a very attractive woman?

The so-called 'proof' soon disappears and the accusation is left hanging while Mr. Dundee foams at the mouth. Well, not really, but just about. To Dundee's chagrin, Hicks continues working for Mrs. Dundee. Hicks is halfway convinced there is some sort of plot against her.

He soon discovers that the 'proof' is in the form of a record or recording disc, a contraption used at the Dundee lab for dictation, among other things.

The lab is out in the Long Island countryside and the copy of the Dell book I have has a handy-dandy map on the back cover showing 'the scene of the murders'. And murders there are, almost as soon as Hicks arrives on the scene, having tailed a woman all the way from the city to the lab.

There are several suspects lurking about as the first murder happens right under their collective noses. The killing - by blunt instrument - of Martha Cooper, the young woman whom Hicks had been tailing. She'd been in Europe with her hubby and just arrived back. While visiting her sister, Heather Gladd, a spunky gal who works as a private secretary at the lab, Cooper is struck down by a foul villain.

A motiveless crime at first glance. Unless you count the fact that Cooper's speaking voice sounded exactly like Judith Dundee's voice, enough to fool even Ross Dundee, the son, who also works at the lab.

More murder follows as Hicks digs deeper into the connection between Dundee's accusations against his wife and the dead bodies down at the lab.

As I said, I figured out the killer early on (I've read A LOT of mysteries over the years) but I still very much enjoyed hanging out with the quirky, acerbic Hicks and two other members of the cast: a couple of young, mixed-up, would-be lovers caught up in the sordid plot, bickering all the way. Fun.

Thanks go out to my blogging buddy John, over at Pretty Sinister Books (my favorite blog title ever) for his initial review of ALPHABET HICKS - it piqued my interest Big Time. I also thank John for making the book available to me especially when I'd searched high and low and couldn't find a copy at a reasonable price.

I'm not sure if there are any more Alphabet Hicks books - I don't think so - but I would be happy to find out I'm wrong.

Don't forget to check in at Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other Forgotten (or Overlooked) books other bloggers are posting about today.

16 comments:

  1. You mean to tell me that Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe don't live in that brownstone on West 35th Street?

    I am crushed.

    This does sound like a good book. I am surprised to learn of a non-Wolfe book by Rex Stout, but he was certainly one who could pursue many interests and projects.

    A one-dimensional person he was not. He had his hands in lots of projects, writings and politics.

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  2. Yvette, I have only ever read two short stories by Rex Stout and none of his Wolfe-Archie mysteries. He's one of a few "cult" writers I seem to have overlooked completely.

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  3. There are at least two other Alphabet Hicks books - The Mountain Cat Murders and The Sound of Murder. He also wrote about Dol Bonner in at least one book - The Hand in the Glove. and Tecumseh Fox has at least three. I love the Nero Wolfe books - I think my favorite is - The Doorbell Rang. Dee

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  4. Gram -- you are misinformed about Hicks. He appears in only one novel. A paperback publisher created the title THE SOUND OF MURDER when they reprinted ALPHABET HICKS. They are the same book. And THE MOUNTAIN CAT MURDERS which I have read does not include Hicks. It's set in Wyoming far away from his place of work. A better read Stout fan told me that there are supposedly some short stories which feature Hicks. I have yet to locate them.

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  5. Kathy, I'm surprised that Archie never ran into Hicks while hailing a cab. Wouldn't that have been a mix. Ha.

    This was a terrific book and I highly recommend it IF you can find it. :)

    Stout was a remarkable man.

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  6. Then all I can say is: Join the cult, Pashant. :)

    You are missing out on one of the great mystery series ever written.

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  7. Gram, THE DOORBELL RANG is one of my favorites too. I also love MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD and WHERE THERE'S A WILL and PLOT IT YOURSELF and MURDER BY THE BOOK and...well, the list grows and grows. :)

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  8. Thanks for the update, John. But did you like my review???? I LOVED THE BOOK. Did you get that part????

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  9. Abe Books has several used copies of The Sound of Murder, starting at around $6 and Amazon sells a used paperback for $4.95 plus shipping.

    I will read this one at some point.

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  10. Of course I go that part, Yvette. I always love your reviews. Sorry my correction mode overrode my "I love everything Yvette" mode. :^D

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  11. I have a ton of Rex Stout books, and have yet to read one of them. A good friends sends them to me when she is done with them. I'm going to read a few this year, I hope.

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  12. To have and not read Rex Stout books if a sacrilege. People all over the world crave these books; send them if don't read them.

    Your loss of great fun and humor. It helps your health to laugh. Why deprive yourself?

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  13. It's been a while since I read "The Sound of Murder," Yvette, but I remember enjoying it and really liking Hicks. As far as I can tell, this was the last non-Nero-Wolfe novel Stout wrote. There are three Tecumseh Fox novels, one featuring Dol Bonner, and Inspector Cramer even has his own novel, "Red Threads." But Wolfe and Archie were firmly established - and they're still the best of his books, IMHO.

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  14. Ryan, I'm with Kathy. You need to get reading. No excuses!

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  15. Oh for sure, Les. I so agree with you. But having said that, I must also add that I enjoyed ALPHABET HICKS enormously.
    Just in a different way.

    You know I am devoted to Wolfe and Archie. :)

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