I haven’t read a Stout novel since January and this remaining Stout novel has been sitting in my TBR pile since then. Feeling a little guilty about having left it so long I decided to read it before the year was out.
The Red Box (1936) opens with quite the surprise when Nero Wolfe leaves his home (all 20 blocks away) in order to pursue an investigation for his new client, Llewellyn Frost. Frost is worried about his Ortho-cousin Helen, who works at a fashion company owned by Boyden McNair. The previous week Helen and her fellow model witnessed the death of a co-worker, Molly Lauck, who was poisoned from a box of candies she had swiped from somewhere. Llewellyn seems very concerned that Helen could be in danger and wants Wolfe to solve the case and thereby remove the threat. Initially it seems like Wolfe’s rare trip outside his home has been a wasted journey as the case lacks leads and those it has invariably end nowhere. Yet Wolfe is not beat and gleams a few important points. Although he does have to deal with his nightmare of a client who suddenly wants the case dropped when he thinks it will involve Helen, a sentiment his other family members share. This may be family devotion or it may be that Helen has a very ample trust fund which she will access in 5 weeks when she is 21.
This is a case where not only does the killer need to be found but also the actual intended victim, an answer which unfortunately comes too late and Wolfe has a race on his hands to solve the case before the body spirals out of control. He also has the police on his back due to an unrequested will legacy, a legacy which could be the key to the whole thing. But where is it?
I think one of the reasons why I find it hard to get enthusiastic about Stout and his work and have yet to read a Wolfe mystery which knocked my socks off is because of their sameness. This sameness partially comes about due to Wolfe’s choice of not going out to solve his cases and therefore there are always the same sort of set scenes, such as the one where the client struggles to get Wolfe to take on a case and to understand his eccentricities. Stout’s prose style also has something to do with this. It is easy and quick to read but it doesn’t blow you away. Perhaps it lacks emotional fluctuations, as I’ve never really felt much atmosphere in his books. There were a few more surprises than usual in this book though and on the whole was reasonably entertaining and well-paced.
Wolfe and Goodwin’s relationship is quite sweet in the way Goodwin has to handle his employer, cajoling and fibbing with him to keep on track, as well as using Wolfe’s immoveable personal protocols against him, giving him a Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory sort of feel at times. As to the solution I did cotton on to one aspect of it, though I didn’t get the killer’s identity correct. The lack of overt evidence in this case was a bit irritating as it did lead to inconclusive and lacklustre ending and one of the most overt clues is annoying in its obscurity.