Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thursday Book Review: THE RED BOX by Rex Stout

I hadn't meant to review this re-read, but loved reading THE RED BOX again so much that I feel like reviewing it just because it's such a damn good mystery. Don't know if you know this but Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books make for great lunch time (or any meal time) reading. Why this should be so, I'm not exactly sure, but so it is. I've been re-reading them for awhile this way and have decided that Wolfe and Archie are especially good company at mealtimes. Try it sometime, you might like it.

THE RED BOX is one of the best of an excellent bunch. It concerns a young woman about to come into her inheritance and you know what trouble that usually brings. If people who wrote wills and left fortunes to offspring knew the kind of trouble their wishes usually stirred up....well, what is a rich person to do with all that money left lying around?

At any rate, Boyden McNair (back in the day, people had names like this), a Scottish ex-pat, runs a highly successful garment business in NYC. He is an overworked, troubled man and appears to be on the verge of some kind of breakdown when one of his models, Molly Lauck, is poisoned. She literally drops dead after eating a chocolate from a box she'd playfully filched off someone's desk. The police find cyanide in several of the chocolates.

Nero Wolfe gets involved when Llewellyn Frost (what did I say about names?) hires him to investigate since one of the young women in the room when Molly met her fate was his ortho-cousin (his words, not mine) Helen Frost and she might be in danger too. The police are stumped.

Wolfe breaks one of his cardinal rules because of a certain letter Llewellyn Frost produces and actually ventures out of the office, risking life and limb, and goes cross town to the garment district to McNair's place of business. Once there he endures all sorts of personal discomfort as he interviews recalcitrant people who don't want to be interviewed even if a defenseless young woman has suddenly died in their midst.

Wolfe perseveres even when his client has second and third thoughts about the unforeseen trouble a detective investigation has stirred up in his family. Especially when a second murder occurs - this time in Wolfe's office, right under the miffed noses of Archie and Wolfe just after Wolfe had finished telling the person that he was perfectly safe. Is such an indignity to be borne? I think not.

There's another, especially ruthless murder which occurs on a New York city street before the single-minded culprit is brought to light and the truth revealed at the usual group assemblage in Wolfe's office with Police Inspector Cramer in attendance.

Wolfe is called upon in this case, to lecture some young people who are being especially dense and does a good job of  reminding them of the realities of life. He is wonderful when it's necessary to hit people upside the head - metaphorically speaking that is. We also get to meet one of Rex Stout's more comically annoying creations in Dudley Frost, the garrulous father of Llewellyn, a man whose torrent of words can only be checked by waving a glass of good whiskey in front of his nose - the opposite of waving a red flag in front of a bull.

In many of the Wolfe books, Wolfe spends time reading and we're usually made aware of the book (or books) he is currently immersed in. This time out it's T.E. Lawrence's SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM (a book Wolfe has already read twice - so he's a re-reader too) and we get the following fascinating revelations from Archie on Wolfe's opinion (I'm assuming it is Rex Stout's opinion also) of Lawrence of Arabia:

He read until dinnertime, but even SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM did not restrain his promptness in responding to Fritz's summons to table. During the meal he kindly explained to me the chief reason for Lawrence's amazing success in keeping the Arabian tribes together for the great revolt. It was because Lawrence's personal attitude toward women was the same as the classic and traditional Arabian attitude.

The central fact about any man, in respect to his activities as a social animal, is his attitude toward women; hence the Arabs felt that essentially Lawrence was one of them, and so accepted him. His native ability for leadership and finesse did the rest. A romantic they would not have understood, a puritan they'd have rudely ignored, a sentimentalist they would have laughed at, but the contemptuous realist Lawrence, with his false humility and his fierce secret pride, they took to their bosoms. The goulash was as good as any Fritz had ever made.


  1. Yes, sounds like one I must read. I think the library has it, and I'll reserve it.

    It's especially compelling if there are good quotes.

    I guess the Wolfeman never changes his opinion of women.

    I just read something by a journalist named Llewellyn King, so the name is still around. And I encountered an author whose spouse's name is Borden Flanagan.
    So these classic names are still around.

  2. Kathy: Sometimes I call them Perry Mason names. In all the Perry Mason shows people had names like these. Yeah, they're still around in certain society circles. :)

    Oh, this is definitely a good one for you to read.

  3. THE RED BOX is pretty good, but my favorite Nero Wolfe is THE GOLDEN SPIDERS.

  4. I believe this is the 4th Wolfe book, and yes, it's a good one. I'm also rereading the Wolfe books, in order, and am up to 1949's Trouble in Triplicate.

  5. George: I like THE GOLDEN SPIDERS too. It's on my list of top Wolfe books.

  6. Richard: I've just reread all the short story selections. Well, the ones I own anyway - but I think I got most of them. Just wonderful stories.

    I don't reread the books in order, I'm not disciplined enough for that. I just read them as the mood strikes. :)

  7. I read this one years back. Enjoyed it. I still have about twenty I haven't read and about half of them I don't own. I need to get on the ones I have. it's been to long.

  8. I keep meaning to read a Nero Wolfe book and haven't done it. My to-read list keeps getting longer and longer!

  9. Randy: I've read them all, I truly do believe. Though most have not remained in my memory except vaguely. It's a pleasure to re-read them though.

    Currently reading MURDER BY THE BOOK for the umpteenth time.

  10. Lauren: Oh, try to read at least one or two. They are a must if you favor Amercian detective stories from the Golden Age. They're as good today as they were then.

  11. I must re-read some of the Rex Stout Nero books. They were among my late night flashlight-under-the-covers reading when I was supposed to be sleeping.

  12. BV: Yes, you definitely should. They are so much fun to reread. I love them. Well, you could tell that - huh?

  13. I am sure Nero Wolfe is a great lunch companion - if you have a proper lunch, that is. Not sure he would appreciate my yoghurt days ;)

  14. Oh, I don't know, Dorte. I've been having yoghurt in the morning alongside Wolfe for weeks now. :)

  15. Yvette, your review of dear Rex Stout's THE RED BOX put a smile on my face. I especially loved your witty remarks about the highfalutin "Perry Mason names" that novel characters had back in the day. If only I could strike a better balance of reading, writing (especially novel writing -- just started polishing Chapter 25 of THE PARANOIA CLUB), blogging, AND goofing off! :-) Thanks for a delightful blog post, Yvette, as always!

  16. Thanks, Dorian. I can't wait to read your book! The title sounds very intriguing. :)

    Time slips away from us. Not much we can do about it. I'm not reading as much lately as I would like. But I'm determined not to worry about.

  17. Yvette, thanks for your encouragement for THE PARANOIA CLUB! Not to put the whammy on it, but our own Becky Barnes, my ghost editor Nicole Bokat and my writers' workshop have praised it so far! Now the trick is to finish polishing PClub (as we call it for short) AND get it published by a real live professional publishing house! I want to be paid for my writing; is that so wrong? :-)

  18. Dorian: Something tells me you'll find a publisher. I can tell what a good writer you are just from your blog. :)

    PLUS it's a great title!

    No you're no wrong to want to be paid for your writing. Who doesn't? Ha!


Your comment will appear after I take a look.