Tea Tonic and Toxin: Mystery and Thriller Podcast and Book Club

NERO WOLFE: The League of Frightened Men

by Rex Stout

A hazing prank at Harvard left Paul Chapin disabled. Years later, two of the men responsible end up dead, and a series of poems promises continued retribution. Now the other men who hazed Paul are desperate for the protection of brilliant detective Nero Wolfe.

Is Paul Chapin exacting revenge on his former classmates, and can Nero Wolfe and his wise-cracking sidekick, Archie Goodwin, stop him before he kills again? Find out in Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men (1935).

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Nero Wolfe: Conversation Starters

A Nero Wolfe Mystery: The League of Frightened Men
The League of Frightened Men (Saturday Evening Post)
The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stour

Before we record our episode on the book, you can check out Tea, Tonic & Toxin conversation starters. Please share your thoughts below!

Rex Stout received the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1959. In 2000, Bouchercon nominated him as Best Mystery Writer of the Century and the Nero Wolfe books as Best Mystery Series of the Century. The Wolfe Pack is the international literary society devoted to Nero Wolfe. Every year on the first Saturday in December, the Wolfe Pack holds a Black Orchid Banquet and presents the Nero Award & the Black Orchid Novella Award for excellence in the mystery genre.

Nero Wolfe Character Types

The Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin of A Family Affair (46th and last book) are essentially the same as the characters we first meet in Fer-de-Lance.

The books have a Golden Age sense of order/puzzles and the hardboiled American school inspired by Prohibition and the Depression. Wolfe and Archie have great chemistry.

Nero Wolfe seems to be a return, an extreme return, to the brilliant armchair amateur. But he has his trusty employee, Archie Goodman, who at once seems a hardboiled detective and a studious secretary. Is Stout blending approaches to detective fiction?

Evelyn Hibbard describes herself as “hard-boiled.” Archie is also hardboiled. Hardboiled (the boiling of an egg) was first used by Mark Twain in 1886 to mean “emotionally hardened.”

Archie Goodwin

Part hardboiled detective and man of action, part studious, live-in secretary and orchid cataloger. He observes but doesn’t get involved with women. A swallower of food, drinker of milk. Intense loyalty and frequent annoyance with his employer, Wolfe. He takes detailed notes in shorthand for Wolfe. He acts as Wolfe’s eyes and ears on the outside. He doesn’t read books. Strong work ethic: “[I’m] too conscientious. I love to do a good job more than anything else I can think of.”

“As usual, you have furnished the fillip.” (the stimulus or boost to an activity) He’s quite clever and focused, though in the 1937 film he comes across as clownish/buffoonish.

“You have not brought us the solution of our case, but you have lifted the curtain to another room of the edifice we are exploring.”

Wolfe recognizes a line from one of the threatening poems as coming from Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar. Wolfe then sends Evelyn Hibbard on her way without taking her case, Archie says: “That girl’s mad. … about one-fifth as mad as I am.” Wolf tells Archie not to bother him. Archie says, “No, sir. I wouldn’t for anything. … where you’ve gut us to at present is wallowing in the umplumbed depths of—wait a minute, I’ll look it up, I think it’s in Spenser.”

Archie is annoyed to discover that the search for Spenser was a ruse so Wolfe could get the niece’s sheet showing all the names of the men in the league. “Reserve your disapproval, Archie,” Wolfe says to Archie. “Save your fake moralities for your solitude.”

Archie to Wolfe: “If you had not once instructed me never to tell you to go to hell, I would tell you to go to hell.”

Wolfe to Archie: “God made you and me, in certain respects, quite unequal, and it would be futile to try any interference with His arrangements.”

Del Bascom shows up and stares at Wolfe. “I suspected he wasn’t overwhelmed by prestige as much as he was by avoirdupois, having never seen Wolfe before.” (weight)

On Archie’s birthday, Wolfe had gifted him a leather case tooled in gold, orchids on one side, the other side covered with Colt automatics, 52 gold pistols aiming at the center. Inside was stamped in gold A. G. from N. W.

Archie pretends to be an ME to get into Burton’s apartment. He deftly interviews Mrs. Burton and times out the shooting scenario in a clever way. In six seconds, Chapin was supposed to take the gun from Burton’s pocket, kill Burton, turn off the lights, and fall to the floor.

When Archie learns Wolfe has been kidnapped, he starts to cry. (250) Dazed, he calls Hibbard to tell him to stay quiet, finds a ride and to go save Wolfe. When he finds him, he passes out.

Nero Wolfe

Wolfe never leaves his house or changes his schedule. 4 hours/day working on detectiving, 4 hours/day working on orchids. What a life! Often referred to a relapse, though that is not known what it is in this book. Rarely even stands up. Uses Archie’s exact recording of the situation as his eyes and ears, but doesn’t at all engage in thinking with him. Completely cerebral. Hibbard has been told that once Wolfe’s “talents are committed to an enterprise, any attempt to circumvent you will be futile.” He solves the mystery by reading Paul Chapin’s books.

Wolfe, the orchid-loving horticulturist. While meeting with Evelyn Hibbard, Wolfe “got up from his chair, which, though she didn’t know it, was an extraordinary concession.”

Wolfe: “The last time I left this house was early September, for the privilege of dining at the same table with Albert Einstein.” Hibbard calls cupidity (greed) Wolfe’s one weakness.

Equitable Distribution of Costs

Wolfe reasons that Evelyn Hibbard shouldn’t have to bear all the costs herself. Wolfe procures a financial report on the men to assess varying rates depending on their financial condition.

Wolfe undertakes “to remove from the league all apprehension and expectation of injury” from Paul Chapin, whomever sent the typewritten warnings, and the person responsible for the deaths of various league members. The sums for each person are “adequate but not extortionate.” The total cost: 56K, plus another 2K from Evelyn Hibbard.

Food & Drink in Nero Wolfe Novels

Perhaps one of the primary characters. Fritz’s cooking is mentioned in every chapter, as is the enormity of Wolfe and his predilection to eating, tasting. Archie refers to himself as a swallower. 

We’re even given a recipe: p 237 – “he had lined a casserole with butter, put in it six tablespoons of cream, three fresh eggs, four Lambert sausages, salt, pepper, paprika and chives, and conveyed it to the oven.” Sarah will be making it if she can figure out what a Lambert sausage is.

Archie drinks a pitcher of milk a night. He doesn’t necessarily abstain from alcohol, but he rarely drinks it, preferring milk. Several characters (Pitney Scott and Mike Ayers) are portrayed rather harshly for what appears to be alcoholism. Scott is definitely trying to stay sober. This is a huge departure from the constant drinking of Hammett’s hardboiled detectives. Wolfe constantly drinks beer. Another departure from hard drinking, but not remotely abstemious. 

Has the social climate changed at this time? Or are these trends more related to the individual authors or characters?

The Hazing, the Atonement, The League, and the Psychology of Fear

Was the hazing of Paul Chapin at Harvard (in 1909, 25 years prior) a boyish prank? The perpetrators have “lightened life’s burden” for Chapin. Chapin notes “how grateful I am for all their kindness!” Chapin later tells Wolfe, “I had learned to live on pity. I am learning now to live without it.” To what degree have the perpetrators atoned for their actions? Is atonement possible?

The League of Atonement becomes the Craven Club, The League of the White Feather … Hibbard is afraid to eat or sleep. He’s desperate for protection. “I am accustomed to the arrangement of words, and the necessity of talking intelligently to you has enforced a semblance of order and urbanity in a section of my brain, but around and beneath that order there is a veritable panic.”

Paul Chapin

Is Paul Chapin a psychopath, someone brilliant but distorted, as he’s described by some members of the league? He’s infatuated with Burton’s wife (his former fiancée). Is there a “deformity of his nervous system, his brain,” as Mrs. Burton tells Archie? At the end, Wolfe derides Chapin’s “appalling infantile contumacy [refusal to obey authority]. It got you a crippled leg. It got you a wife. It very nearly got you two thousand volts of electricity.”

How about Dora – is she a psychopath? She injures herself and pretends her husband (and then Wolfe) did it. She drugs Archie and threatens to kill Archie unless Wolfe gets in her taxi. She collects items from Mrs. Burton at her husband’s behest.

Mrs. Burton

Archie says, “She was quite a person, that Mrs. Burton. I was getting so I liked her. Maybe her soul was put away in a box somewhere, but other items of her insides, meaning guts, were all where they ought to be. If I was the kind that collected things, I wouldn’t have minded having one of her gloves myself.”

Nero Wolfe: The Twist

The book is positioned as knowing who the killer is and trying to prove it, but the twist is there is no killer. Just a guy pretending to be responsible for accidental deaths to revenge himself. Then another member of the League turns out to do some actual killing.  Is this why this particular book was chosen from all of Stout’s? Or are there other reasons?

Certainly a unique angle. Reminds Sarah of The Three Coffins, where the victim is in fact the killer.

Nero Wolfe: ​​The Ending

Chapin confesses to not killing Burton or the other two members of the league. He confesses to sending threatening letters to the league members. Ultimately, Wolfe reveals Bowen, the stockbroker, as the murderer. This confession turns out to be Wolfe’s own creation. Chapin promises to kill Wolfe off in a future novel “in the most abhorrent manner conceivable.”

Archie says, “I’ve got to figure out certain suggestions to make to Paul Chapin for his next book. My head is full of ideas.” Wolfe rings for beer. “Your head full of ideas? Even my death by violence is not too high a price for so rare and happy a phenomenon as that.”

Staying Power

Though an immensely prolific writer in his time, with Nero Wolfe being compared to Perry Mason (Erle Stanley Gardner), he has become much less well known today. What causes some characters to remain prominent and others to become more obscure? TV & movie deals? Do these characters translate to the screen?

Nero Wolfe-isms (Aphorisms, or Pithy General Truths)

Del Bascom: “You would be the first to agree that ours is a dignified profession.”

Wolfe: “Not explicitly. To assert dignity is to lose it.”

“All genius is distorted. Including my own.”

“culture was like money, it comes easiest to those who need it least”

“When a man of a certain type is forced into drastic financial retrenchment, he first deserts his family, then goes naked, and then gives up his club.”

Archie says Wolfe is a genius. “But since I’m only human, I couldn’t keep myself from wanting to kick him …. I came awful close to it sometimes, when he said things like, ‘Patience, Archie; if you eat the apple before it’s ripe your only reward is a bellyache.’”

Nero Wolfe: Weigh In

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About Tea, Tonic & Toxin

Tea, Tonic, and Toxin is a book club and podcast for people who love mysteries, detective stories, thrillers, introspection, and good conversation. Each month, your hosts, Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters, will dive into the history of mystery to get a firsthand look at how the mystery genre evolved.

Along the way, we’ll entertain ideas, prospects, theories, doubts, and grudges, along with fabulous guests. And we hope to entertain you, dear friend. We want you to experience the joys of reading some of the best mysteries and thrillers ever written.

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