Month: October 2014

The League of Frightened Men

The League of Frightened Men - Rex Stout

The League of Frightened Men – Rex Stout

The second Nero Wolfe novel was published in 1935.  I read the previous Rex Stout effort and so was really excited to get my hands on this book. I ordered it straightaway and read it through.  I think I liked it just as well as the previous novel – but this one seems to be written better.  I zoomed through the first couple of chapters right away and it was immediately fun to hang out with Archie and Nero again.

The voice of the narrator, Archie Goodwin, is very unique.  His narration is interesting and helpful and seems consistent to his character. Also, every once in awhile Archie gives a turn of phrase that makes me read it twice because it is so quirky or unusual.

My first impression of Nero Wolfe was not that I disliked him, but that I felt a lot of other readers would dislike him.  Or misunderstand him. I think he is a hoot – although I am still occasionally taken aback by some of the banter and sniping that he and Archie share. Nero Wolfe (after these two novels) is a bit of an enigma and a person one cannot help but be curious about.  I also feel that Wolfe would say there is actually nothing to be curious about.  Anyway, one of my favorite moments is the “trick” Wolfe uses with Spenser’s poem “The Shepheardes Calender” – and when Archie gets sarcastic later on with Wolfe about this “trick.”  It’s so witty.

Descriptors that come to mind referencing Wolfe are easily “obese” and “smart.”  However, I think a very necessary ingredient to his make up is a bravado/confidence.  He is not really a person who is capable of false humility or insecurity.  And it is this odd confidence found in an agoraphobic that really interests me qua reader.

“Don’t badger me. I read it because it was a book.  I had finished The Native’s Return, by Louis Adamic, and Outline of Human Nature, by Alfred Rossiter, and I read books.” – Nero Wolfe to Archie, pg. 18; chapter 2

This semi-churlish quote from Wolfe amused me.  But I, of course, had to look up the names of these.  I am pretty sure other readers probably run right past them. I cannot let a book reference in a book go un-researched.  Anyway, I discovered that Alfred Rossiter was a relatively famous and successful astronomer who married Ruth Stout. Ruth is Rex Stout’s sister.  Kudos to Rex for planting this little reference in his novel!

I like the way Stout writes because I can be in the scene with the characters.  Somehow, using Archie’s voice and Wolfe’s uniqueness, I can easily form images of the scenes in the novel.  Everything is so clear for me to imagine.  I contrast this with so many novels that, try as I might, I can only summon up some vague picture that may not really be accurate to the author’s conception.  In this novel, I was right in the Wolfe’s office, in the roadster with Archie, and in the Inspector’s building.

Anyway, this is reputed to be a major example of a psychology-filled mystery. I think that is clearly accurate.  There’s a lot of “psychology” going on in this novel – not just with the overall criminal.  As far as “scientific psychological analysis,” that’s something different.  But fiction-wise, this novel presents characters that are not just handed some flat and barren motive that allows the heroes to hunt them down.  Archie and Nero are astute with examining people and describing the other characters in terms of psychological-driven ideas, mores, motives, and moods.  It’s very well done and deserves most of the praise given to it.

However, I think this novel is a bit long. The mystery, that is.  There are a lot of mis-trails and re-directions.  They all seem connected and some seem needless. And maybe it is not exactly the most logically-precise wrap up of a mystery.  But that is okay, because it is quite entertaining and a truly interesting read.  Once again, mystery readers will not be disappointed whatsoever.

4 stars

Fer-de-Lance

Fer-de-Lance - Rex Stout; Pyramid, 1968

Fer-de-Lance – Rex Stout; Pyramid, 1968

Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was first published in 1934. It is the first in the Nero Wolfe detective series. I have two copies of this novel:  the 1984 Bantam paperback and the 1968 (3rd printing) of the Pyramid paperback. I read the former.  There were a number of typos in my edition; I did not find this reprehensible, but other readers might hate reading such text.  I think that there is at least one erroneous paragraph in the Bantam versions – beyond the basic typos.

Nero Wolfe is one of the most famous detectives in the genre.  Of course, everyone knows Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but Nero Wolfe may be the third famous.  The character is even referenced in a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. He is exceedingly large, sedentary, and fastidious.  We first meet Wolfe as he is tasting beers – this timeline corresponds to the passing of the Cullen-Harrison Act (March 22, 1933) that legalized a low-alcohol (3.2%) beer.  The entire novel, though, is told through the eyes and ears of the main character, Archie Goodwin.

Archie is something like the footman and errand boy for Wolfe.  He does all of the actual legwork in the investigations.  He resides in the NYC brownstone along with Wolfe and Wolfe’s other “servants.”  Of course, it is the 1930s and one doesn’t say “servants,” even though just household crew is meant.  Archie is in his 30s, I think, but from this novel, it is difficult to really say that with any true assurance.  In fact, throughout, one might reasonably guess Archie’s age to be anywhere from 19 – 42 years old.

Archie does all of the grunt work on the investigations and he acts like head-of-household.  But he is not simply the brawn to Wolfe’s brain – Archie also is shown as capable for taking notes, collating stories and documents, and doing research.  I think he also does a good portion of the budgeting in the household. It takes a bit to get used to Archie’s point of view.  The author has a distinctive writing style and it can be jarring.  Also, until the reader gets used to it, the sarcastic banter between Archie and Wolfe, et al. seems really caustic and abrasive.  Overall, Archie is a good-hearted chap, although quite opinionated. He is devoted to his boss – even loyal enough to disagree with Wolfe when the need arises. It is through Archie’s eyes that we meet the other characters in the book.

Fritz giggled.  He’s the only man I’ve ever known who could giggle without giving you doubts about his fundamentals. – pg. 93, chapter 10

Wolfe has a live-in chef named Fritz Brenner.  Fritz acts as the household butler and prepares elaborate meals for the household.  He is also, I believe, in charge of acquiring and serving Wolfe’s vast amount of beer. The biggest issue I had with this entire novel, is that we have a fantastic chef, a spunky American named Archie, and an obese genius who spends his afternoons cultivating orchids and drinking beer – and we do not really get much background at all about these characters.  There is no backstory as to how this crew met, decided to work together, decided what to work on, how they developed their idiosyncrasies, etc.  And frankly, between agoraphobic Wolfe, happy-go-lucky Archie, and a cook named Fritz – one would expect an amazingly thrilling backstory.

The actual crimes in the book to which Wolfe and Archie apply themselves are typical of the genre.  Murder. Two murders, actually.  Plenty of suspects, an inept and obnoxious district attorney and investigator, and a rich, young woman fill out the storyline.  The young woman’s father is murdered on the golf course.  Literally, at the tee.  Nero Wolfe, without leaving his brownstone, solves the crime.  But the twist is that the crime is not what the reader originally thinks.  Instead, this death is also connected to two other deaths – one recent, one many years past.

The key feeling within the novel is that Wolfe and Archie do not solve these cases because of some altruistic belief or some devotion to justice.  Both seem to have a keen sense of truth and prefer monetary reward to the satisfaction of justice served.  They do not always play fair and perhaps cross the line into committing criminal acts themselves.  Definitely, they hinder and obstruct the course of lawful investigation. Regardless, it is interesting to have an agoraphobic genius who is so attached to money.

The major prop in the novel is a fer-de-lance – a breed of poisonous serpent.  Archie struggles with saying the name:

I tried it again. “Fair-duh-lahnss?”  Wolfe nodded.  “Somewhat better. Still too much n and not enough nose.  You are not a born linguist, Archie.  Your defect is probably not mechanical.  To pronounce French properly you must have within you a deep antipathy, not to say scorn, for some of the most sacred of the Anglo-Saxon prejudices.  In some manner you manage without that scorn, I do not quite know how. – pg. 166, chapter 16

Overall, I really want to find out more about this NYC brownstone and its inhabitants.  After having read Sherlock and Poirot, well, its kind of tough to impress me.  So the “genius” of Wolfe isn’t all that impressive.  However, it is curious and because of that, I have collected a number of Nero Wolfe novels.  This specific novel is quite standard in comparison to the genre and so I can only give it three stars.  I recommend this to those who like pre-1940 American novels and who want more and more and more of the detective genre.

3 stars

The Stardroppers

The Stardroppers - John Brunner; DAW, 1972; cover Jack Gaughan

The Stardroppers – John Brunner; DAW, 1972; cover Jack Gaughan

I finished The Stardroppers this afternoon.  Written by John Brunner and first published in this form (and under this title) in 1972, it was a super fast read for me.  I really like the Jack Gaughan cover art on this novel.  This is the sort of thing I would probably buy a poster of and put somewhere odd – like in the kitchen, or something.   In full disclosure:  the last two novels I read were quite bad, so anything I had read next would probably have gotten at least three stars from me.

In this book we meet the main character, Dan Cross, as he lands in future London, England from the USA.  Dan is proceeding through “customs” with his “stardropper.”  Chapter 1 is fairly interesting; the reader should be drawn into the novel by what is given.  In Chapter 2, we meet another major character, Hugo Samuel Redvers.  From Redvers we learn that our main character is actually Special Agent Cross.  The scene in this chapter is really typical of those scenes in all spy movies. Character is having a meal/drink in fancy hotel restaurant.  Second character surprises him and sits at his table with an arrogant air and a caustic warning.  The reason I mention this is because this first impression of Redvers stuck with me throughout the book – but not so much with Redvers.  As the story went onward, I started to feel that this cocky know-it-all Redvers moves far away from the Redvers in this scene.  By the last chapter, I feel like Redvers is a sniveling, annoying wimp.   There really was not any reason for this change, either.

Anyway, stardroppers are these machines that are something like AM/FM radios.  No one really knows how they truly work, or what they actually work on.  Allegedly, their discovery was accidental – a scientist was experimenting on another project and noticed anomalies.  Throughout the book, I imagined them generally as those old school binoculars that came in carrying cases or something like “ham” radios.  Stardroppers can also refer to the persons who use stardroppers.  The usage of these items is described many times in the story and Brunner works hard to make the reader feel their usage is commonplace and relatively easy.  The results are kept vague.  Basically, you turn on the machine and put earphones in.  After tuning, you “listen.”

The phenomenon/practice of stardropping (Cp. eavesdropping) is treated as if it were a cross-cultural, cross-generational fad or hobby.  There are plenty of suggestions that it is harmful, addictive, and similar to psychotropic usage.  In other cases, it seems the practice is for research and for those persons who would like to investigate UFOs and other kosmic occurrences. Either way, no one really seems to know much about it – and the scientist who “discovered” this phenomenon is taken to be authoritative for no better reason than he discovered it.  This is the bulk of the novel – and it is the sort of thing that would interest readers who like anthropology and sociology.  But readers of space adventure and space opera might find this sort of ruminating a bit dull.

The whole story culminates in the last three chapters – which do seem a bit of a departure from the storyline that came before.  The main character is fun in the sense that he is a “special agent/spy” type.  But he also is not really fantastic at his job.  However, the super cool concepts get tagged onto him.  For example, the Agency uses hypnosis and neo-Freudian personal associations with words to create a specific user-only language.  It’s bulky and, in reality, untenable.  But it sure is fun to think about.   This plays a role in the resolution of the novel, as well, so it’s good to pay attention when you read about it first in chapter 8.

Overall, this was an okay read.  I feel like a lot of time was spent making stardropping seem murky and like LSD-usage.  It is at the root of social-disorder.  Stardroppers seem to run the gamut between hopeful dreamers, childish addicts, and physics students.  Either way the usage has become so pervasive that the governments have become involved in monitoring this situation.  So, beyond just a personal-level of intrigue, the novel contextualizes stardropping in terms of global politics.  And in the end, the world is saved…. by what was first presented as a fringe, drug-like culture.  I wonder what Brunner really wanted our take-away to be………

3 stars

Matrix

Matrix - Douglas R. Mason; Ballantine, 1970; cover: Paul Lehr

Matrix – Douglas R. Mason; Ballantine, 1970; cover: Paul Lehr

Matrix by Douglas R. Mason was published in 1970.  I read the Ballantine January 1970 edition with the cover by Paul Lehr.  This is the second book by Mason that I have read.  I have one more currently in my collection that I have not yet read.

Truth be told, this novel is, more or less, a re-write of Eight Against Utopia.  It has enough differences to say that it is a different novel, but let’s not buy into that too far.  Like in the earlier novel, an executive of the city questions the structure and command of the city.  He tinkers secretly in a makeshift storeroom with “forbidden” mechanics.  Like the main character in the earlier novel, this executive is reduced to apoplexia whenever a girl is around and has a libido that is out of control.  Just as in the earlier novel, the city is encased in a dome-structure and a good amount of the novel takes place in survival-mode outside of the domed city.

There are a whole lot more similarities between the novels, but I think those present a fair estimation of the comparison.  Don’t get me wrong – I think Mason should have re-worked Eight Against Utopia, because that was really bad.  However, I do not think Matrix is any better of an effort. I completely follow the storyline and I think that this could have been decent.  It could have been a readable, entertaining novel.  But somehow Mason just cannot write well-enough.  I’m somewhat embarrassed for him, I guess.

Joe Dill is an executive in the system.  He finds housing for the citizens.  He starts to believe something is happening within the domed city that does not sit right. So, of course, he decides to involve his secretary (Barbara Rowe) and they leave the dome and explore another domed city nearby:  Egremont City.  He returns home after a harrowing experience and discovers that the Matrix (the computer that governs the city) has found out about his rebellious thoughts and actions.

Part of the storyline involves the biomechs – these are people who have had their lifespan expanded exponentially because of mechanical and/or cybernetic modifications. Throughout the novel, Mason wants us to consider how an extended lifespan (near immortality) is actually ruination for humanity because it has bred a lethargic, incurious, stagnant humanity.  Mason talks at the reader about this (via Joe Dill), but it is not really fleshed out. A better author could have really explored this topic interestingly.  In some convoluted way, Mason ties this into the motives for Joe Dill’s escape, evasion, and battle against the Matrix.  I find it difficult to believe Joe is that concerned about humanity qua humanity.  I feel he just wants more freedom – and more freedom with women.

This is what had given the military idea such a long currency on the human scene.  There was a fierce and consuming satisfaction in it.  Outlet for aggression, that homed precisely on a basic strand of the psychological spectrum and had it vibrating. – pg. 95

Anyway, the book is sporadic.  The majority is filled with action-scenes.  To Mason’s credit, these are better than in the previous novel, but still not great.  In between are boring parts where the story rather stalls and sputters.  The chauvinism is still there, but maybe just slightly less than in the previous book. Not much less. Here’s a line with Dill addressing Barbara, who has joined their ragtag crew of rebels outside of the domed city:

Dill said, “You can make yourself useful right now and bring up some coffee.” – pg. 74

Anytime there is a female in the scene with Dill there are these sorts of comments or he has to pause to drool over her. It’s pathetic and ridiculous, most of the time.

One of the concepts that Mason kept from the earlier novel is the brain-connection between the overseeing system and the human individual.  Though hardly as present in this novel as in the other, this concept does play a role and is still the most interesting part of the storyline.  I have to share that there is a scene “straight out of a comic book” wherein Dill and Rowe are captured and the Matrix has robots hook the prisoners up to “porcupine-like electrodes” in order to establish links to their brains.  These links are where Mason’s development of the concept fails; he doesn’t know how to utilize this concept interestingly and solidly.

Well, overall another skippable novel.  It is just like Eight Against Utopia with a different cast.  Some minor differences. Still written poorly (so many people and things move “pneumatically” that it must have been Mason’s favorite word).  Once again, a better author could have done something with this landscape.  All I can say is that it does not require any brain power whatsoever to read.

2 stars