I finished The Rubber Band by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975), which was first published in 1936 and is the third novel in the famous Nero Wolfe series. I last read a Nero Wofle novel (the second) in 2014, so reading the third has been due for quite some time. I really enjoy these novels and this January has not been given over to science fiction, but rather mysteries. There is a lot to love about the classic vintage detectives Lord Peter, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, et al. However, I think Wolfe has the least amount of reader-sympathizers. He does come across, most of the time, as petulent and stubborn. His girth and his seemingly-upper class status would be enough to do in most of those people who get past his personality.
One of the necessary things that readers of Wolfe mysteries must be able to do, is to understand that the majority of the commentary is sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek. Most of the wit and banter is part of the jovial and unsinkable personality of the narrator, Archie Goodwin. The humor moves around from deadpan drops to facetious comments to outright snark. It is going to take a witty and discerning reader to enjoy the ruckus. Now, I am not going to say that at times it can get a little tedious. However, it seems there exists readers who take certain lines very seriously, instead of realizing they should be taken quite opposite. My own household is full of witty retort and often ridiculous conversation. That is not to say that deep, academic argument is not undertaken. If this very average household witnesses these things, I can only imagine the same would hold true for Wolfe’s very unique household.
“You’ve already upset enough. Go upstairs and behave yourself. Wolfe has three wives and nineteen children in Turkey.”
“I don’t believe it. He has always hated women until he saw how nicely they pack in osmundine.”
This is a very funny exchange – between harried characters who are both witty folk. Strangely, I think there are readers out there who could not see this sarcasm….
There is a very surprising and amusing event that happens in the Wolfe household when the city police come through with a search warrant. I was really worried for the group – how were they going to hide their client? And then when it happened, I did laugh aloud. It is funny as heck, particularly if you really spend time imagining the scene properly!
She had been in the plant rooms with Wolfe for an hour before six o’clock, and during dinner he went on with a conversation which they had apparently started then, about folk dances and that sort of junk. He even hummed a couple of tunes for her, after the guinea chicken had been disposed of, which caused me to take a firm hold on myself so as not to laugh the salad out of my mouth. – Chapter 15
Because at the end of the day, truly, Wolfe, like all good heroes, is a romantic and a connoisseur. Archie, of course, has no immense cultural learning so his perspective on such moments is priceless. Such is the comedic situation that Stout adroitly manages. Now, there has been effort by some so-called literary folk to make Wolfe and Goodwin’s lifestyle into some facet of homosexual scenario. I think, and I did not think very much on it, that such literary folk are reading way too much of their own personal agendas into these novels – simply because there are plenty of lines in each novel that nearly state how untrue that could be. I think one could, if they entertained such imaginings, make a slight case for Fritz (the cook/butler), but otherwise it seems to me such an assessment is hogwash.
So, I have complained about readers who have no sense of humor and ones who seek to agenda-interpret. The reason for both, though, is the same: these books are not for the dour and sour. I do not know much at all about Stout, but I do know – based on these novels – that he was not dour. And his audience is probably primarily the readers of that golden era detective fiction that literature historians have delineated. However, I do think his actual audience was anyone who enjoyed wit and humor. The pretty neat thing about Stout’s work is that he was able to combine comedy with detective-plot skill. I am at the point, now, where I rarely read vintage detection/mystery novels for their plots. I often find their storylines to be a bit convoluted or tangled. I am usually reading these novels for the characters and the wit. In short, I enjoy intelligent, witty people and have no use for the miserable and perpetually over-serious.
This novel is full of characters and for a short novel, it is really stuffed with them. Archie, by the way, feels similarly as he is running around the house opening doors and shuttling people to and fro. I think the plot is okay overall, but that Stout did let it get away from him a bit. The beginning is a bit slow – and my word, the story that the character Clara Fox tells is really long-winded. By the end, though, the whole thing is sewn up nicely and satisfactorily. I think there ends up being three dead bodies in total, which seems like a lot for a two-day time span of the novel. Unfortunately, the majority of the detection and investigation occurs off-screen and even beyond the scope of the narrator. This is weird. I mean, even for off-screen detection this one is further on down that line. For that reason, I am sure many readers would not rate this novel as highly as some other Nero Wolfe reads. Its strange to have such a great narrator and main character and just keep the reader so completely in the dark about all of the detection. I suppose that is exactly how Nero gets to have such bombshell-dropping reveals at the end while all of the characters sit calmly in his office. However, it is not a technique I think an author ought to use very much.
So, if you are a fan of vintage “Golden Era” mysteries AND you have a strong sense of humor, I can recommend this novel (and other Wolfe novels). If you are utterly humorless, well, do not even bother, you will hate them. Now, I am not kidding: it is literally time for my supper and beer and I absolutely despise when those times are disrupted.