Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt: Just One Person
I mentioned in my first TNB post on Rex Stout earlier this month of a key comparison which critics and readers alike have made between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin with Mycroft/Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. This idea has remained in my head this month as I have read and reviewed other Stout stories – Too Many Cooks and A Right To Die. But it is reading The Rubber Band (1936), that I felt the Holmesian comparisons most strongly.
The title of the novel started this off for me, with my mind immediately thinking of the Holmes’ story ‘The Speckled Band’ (1892). Moreover, although there aren’t major similarities (correct me if I am wrong) plot wise between the two stories, I did think there was a connection between how the object in both titles has a playful duality of being both literal and figurative in the stories.
The Holmesian feeling continues with the opening of the book. Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe are going about their normal activities, humorously provoking each other and trying to counteract these provocations. Goodwin attempts to do his provoking through reading aloud the newspaper, an article on the visiting Marquis of Clivers, an English diplomat, who has come to America to discuss the financial and military tensions in the East. We are openly told by Goodwin (who narrates the story) at this point that Clivers will be involved in the case this book relates and that a piece of information in the report read out previously actually helped Wolfe solve the case.
The structural similarities continue when Goodwin and Wolfe have two groups of clients coming to them to explain their problem. The first is Antony Perry, a banking tycoon who wants Wolfe to investigate the theft of $30,000 from one of his vice president’s (Mr Muir), desk. The prime suspect is Clara Fox, the cable clerk, but Perry is convinced she is not the thief. This meeting seems relatively conventional, but as for the second meeting of the day, the Holmesian client meets detective scene is shaken up. First of all, an unexpected man called Harlan Scovil enters the office explaining that he is due to be involved in the second appointment, along with Mike Walsh, Vic’s daughter and Gil’s daughter. He seems content to wait as Wolfe tends to his orchids and Goodwin rushes out to deal with a development in their first case (Muir is determined to set the police on Fox). However, on Goodwin’s return he seems to have left and none of the people he mentioned (who do turn up for their appointment) know where he has gone. A connection is formed between the two cases mentioned as Gil’s daughter turns out to be none other than Clara Fox. In a nutshell these people have come to Wolfe because they want him to help prove their right to a share of Cliver’s wealth. It turns out that in the 1890s, Walsh along with Scovil, Victor Lindquist, Gil Fox and Rubber Coleman (who were a part of a gang called The Rubber Band and led by Coleman) were involved in helping Clivers escape from prison. The agreement being that once he inherited he would give them some of his wealth. The reason for this claim cropping up so late was that seemingly none of the original members had tracked Clivers down for the money and that Clara was only aware of the scheme once her mother died and she went through her things. This scene where Clara explains everything does tie into the Holmes precedent but I think the way Stout sets out and prolongs the scene means the nature of the client’s problem takes much longer to find out, with different pieces of information being learnt at different points. Due to the Holmes stories being much shorter this does not tend to happen, as the brevity of the stories means being succinct is paramount. Although there is an example of Doyle withholding the nature of a case in ‘The Adventure of the Missing Three Quarter,’ (1904) as a badly written telegram confuses the situation.
But this is not a novel without a death or two and the reason for Scovil’s disappearance is a grim one. Police involvement, which initially is keen to protect Clivers, makes Wolfe’s investigation more complicated and is increased when Perry’s stolen money turns up in Fox’s car and her arrest is sought after. Did Fox steal the money? Who killed Scovil? Is Fox and co.’s claim to Cliver’s money genuine? Is this one case or two? Wolfe with the police breathing down his neck and a plethora of problems to unravel has his work cut out for him. The solution to this story is a good one and is well prepared for and to me it had a Holmesian feel to it, but I will say no more on that matter.
Despite Wolfe allowing a woman to stay in his house, this novel still keeps up a dichotomy of women either being unattractive and therefore scorned or dismissed or being attractive but dangerous and a nuisance-like nincompoop (yes it seems you can be both), with Clara Fox being firmly kept in the latter category. Though it seems Wolfe is prepared to mentally re-categorise her when he advocates she leaves the role of independent woman/ adventuress and follows the more acceptable (to a traditionally patriarchal society) matrimonial path. Not sure the word best is particularly suitable (though I feel at some point someone should do a top ten of these), but the following are the examples of Wolfe and Goodwin’s attitudes to women which stood out for me:
‘Not that I disapprove of them, except when they attempt to function as domestic animals. When they stick to the vocations in which they are best adapted, such as chicanery, sophistry, self-adornment, cajolery, mystification and incubation, they are sometimes splendid creatures’ (Wolfe).
‘She wasn’t a woman, she was an epidemic’ (Goodwin).
Something I noticed from these two examples is the different emphasis the examples give. As when reading Wolfe’s comment it is hard to approve of the ideas he is espousing. However, Goodwin’s line has a greater intention for being humorous and I can imagine a number of readers involuntarily laughing out loud. This more comical way of being negative about women caught my attention as I felt it resonates with our own age, even if this book was written 80 years ago, as in today’s culture comments such as Wolfe’s would be strongly refuted, but comments such as Goodwin’s would probably be much more socially acceptable. Gender depictions aren’t the main thrust of the novel and therefore don’t want to give a skewed impression of it, but this was just something I picked up on.
Rating: 4/5 for the puzzle and solution and 3.75/5 for the overall engagement of the narrative.