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

Nero Wolfe Mystery Series: The League of Frightened Men

The League of Frightened Men - Rex Stout - Nero Wolfe - Podcast Episode from Tea, Tonic & Toxin
The League of Frightened Men - Rex Stout - Nero Wolfe - Podcast Episode from Tea, Tonic & Toxin
Tea, Tonic, and Toxin
Nero Wolfe Mystery Series: The League of Frightened Men

Nero Wolfe Mystery Series / The League of Frightened Men

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 in the second book in the Nero Wolfe mystery series.

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).

Learn More: Read our starter questions on The League of Frightened Men.

Get Excited: Check out the 2024 book list.

Be Heard: Tell us what you’re thinking here.

TRANSCRIPT: Nero Wolfe Mystery Series / The League of Frightened Men

Sarah Harrison  00:24
Welcome to Tea Tonic & Toxin, a book club and podcast for anyone who wants to explore the best mysteries and thrillers ever written. I’m your host, Sarah Harrison.

Carolyn Daughters  00:35
And I’m your host Carolyn Daughters. Pour yourself a cup of tea, a gin and tonic …

Sarah Harrison  00:40
… but not a toxin … 

Carolyn Daughters  00:42
And join us on a journey through 19th and 20th century mysteries and thrillers, every one of them a game changer. 

Carolyn Daughters  01:03
Today’s sponsor is Linden Botanicals, a Colorado based company that sells the world’s healthiest herbal teas and extracts. Their team has traveled the globe to find the herbs that offer the best science-based support for stress relief, energy, memory, mood, kidney health, joint health, digestion and inflammation. US orders over $75 ship free. To learn more visit lindenbotanicals.com. And use code mystery to get 15% off your first order.

Sarah Harrison  01:37
Good morning, Carolyn.

Carolyn Daughters  01:38

Good morning, Sarah. First of all, I want to point out that we are recording in the morning, which we don’t normally do on a weekday.

Ira Brad Matetsky  01:45
If you’re listening in the evening, good evening.

Carolyn Daughters  01:49
Then the other thing that I want to point out is that this is my first Nero Wolfe mystery. We’re going to talk Nero Wolfe today.

Sarah Harrison  01:57
It was my first, too. I was excited about it. And there’s — I don’t know exactly — there’s a lot. There’s like 60 more or something like that.

Carolyn Daughters  02:05
I know. I want to dive in. I was really excited about reading this book. I couldn’t believe I had never read Nero Wolfe before. And now I’m ready to dive in.

Sarah Harrison  02:15
All right, let’s do it.

Carolyn Daughters  02:18
First of all, we have a guest that we’re going to introduce a little bit in more depth, but his name is Ira Brad Matetsky. We’ll explain why he is the ideal guest for this conversation we’re going to have. And the book we’re reading is a Nero Wolfe mystery. It’s the second in the Nero Wolfe series. It’s called The League of Frightened Men. A hazing prank at Harvard left Paul Chapin disabled. More than two decades later, two of the men responsible end up dead, and a series of threatening poems promises continued retribution. Now the other men who hazed Paul Chapin are desperate for the protection of brilliant detective Nero Wolfe. Is Paul Chapin exacting revenge on his former classmates, and can Nero Wolfe stop the killer before he strikes again? Published in 1935, The League of Frightened Men is Rex Stout’s second Nero Wolfe mystery. Rex Stout received the Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Award in 1959. In 2000, Bouchercon nominated him as best mystery writer of the century and the Nero Wolfe mystery books as best mystery series of the century. Now, the Wolfe Pack is the International Literary Society devoted to Nero Wolfe. And every year on the first Saturday in December, the Wolfe Pack holds a Black Orchid Banquet and presents the Nero Award and the Black Orchid Novella Award for excellence in the mystery genre. Today, we’re excited to talk about The League of Frightened Men. You can learn more about all of our book selections at teatonicandtoxin.com and on Facebook and Instagram @teatonicandtoxin.

Sarah Harrison  03:59
Awesome. I am really excited to introduce our guest, Ira Brad Matetsky has been the Werowance,  which means president, of the Wolfe Pack since 2007. He has written a number of articles about Nero Wolfe and related topics. He has edited The Last Drive and Other Stories, a collection of some of Rex Stout’s earliest work, published by the mysterious press Open Road in 2015. Ira is also a Sherlockian and is invested as a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. The final problem and the adventurous is adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. By day he is a litigation partner at the law firm of Dorf Nelson and Zauderer LLP in New York City. Did I say any of that wrong, Ira?

Ira Brad Matetsky  04:56
All good.

Sarah Harrison  04:57
Welcome to the podcast. We’re so excited to have you.

Ira Brad Matetsky  05:01
Thank you very much for being here. I’m looking forward to it myself and also on behalf of all our members in the Wolfe Pack.

Sarah Harrison  05:10
Awesome. We’re very excited to hear about the Wolfe Pack actually.

Carolyn Daughters  05:14
How did you come to Nero Wolfe? Where did you first find out that there are all these Nero Wolfe mystery books and that you wanted to read them?

Ira Brad Matetsky  05:36
I’ll tell you how I came to it. And it’s rather atypical. We actually surveyed our Wolfe Pack members a few years ago, and most of them came to Nero Wolfe in one of two ways. Either from a parent or a relative or a friend, who introduced them to the books, or else from having seen one of the adaptations, most recently the A&E network series with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton that ran from 2000 to 2002. I came to Nero Wolfe by accident. I’ve actually tried to retrace exactly how this happened for my own curiosity, and it’s lost in the depths of time. At some point before there was an internet, or at least before I had found out about it, I wound up on the mailing list of something called Mysteries by Mail, which you could use to order mysteries or detective fiction that wasn’t conveniently available at your local bookstore. I had read through Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and two or three other authors. I was just looking through this catalog for an author to enjoy. I picked out three or four authors from a one- or two-paragraph description of the author and one or two or three of her or his books, and Rex Stout sounded interesting. The books were set in Manhattan, and I lived in live in Manhattan. It said there was a lot of detection in the books, which was good. There was witty writing, which of course is good. There was a lot of discussion of food and the meals the characters ate. That sounded fun. It said there was a lot about orchid plants. Okay, that part didn’t grab me personally. I sent away for two or three or four of the books, enjoyed them, and set out to find the others. From there it became my main detective fiction passion for a while. Then I exhausted the books that were available through this catalog and at the local Barnes and Noble. My office at the time was a few blocks away from the Mysterious Bookshop, which had a subspecialty in Nero Wolfe mystery books. And they sold me over the next two or three years. As I said before, you could go on abebooks.com and order everything in half an hour, which makes books more accessible but takes the fun out of collecting. It took me two or three years to find all 46 books.

Sarah Harrison  08:30
I knew I got that number wrong.

Ira Brad Matetsky  08:31
There are 33 novels, and there are 39 short stories, which are typically collected a groups of three. So that leaves 46 or 47 books all together.

Carolyn Daughters  08:45
Sarah, had you read a Nero Wolfe mystery or heard of Nero Wolfe before we came to The League of Frightened Men?

Sarah Harrison  08:53
I hadn’t. We had looked up movies because I feel like a lot of times it’s media or TV that seems to keep these books current. And the movie we found for that one was from the 30s.

Carolyn Daughters  09:14
It was strange. It was very different than the book.

Sarah Harrison  09:19
Have you seen that one?

Ira Brad Matetsky  09:20
You know, it’s funny. After a couple of years of collecting Nero Wolfe, one day, I walked in, and there was a little analog bulletin board at the entrance to the Wolfe Pack and there was an old-fashioned index card that said that the Wolfe Pack’s annual weekend of events was coming up. I signed up for the events. This would have been on a Friday night either in 1992 or 1993. My very first Wolfe Pack event was a screening of the two movies from the 1930s. You can now find them on YouTube. but back then they were hard to find on old-fashioned, reel-to-reel projectors.

Carolyn Daughters  10:05
Oh, wow.

Ira Brad Matetsky  10:06
Meet Nero Wolfe, which is based on the first Nero Wolfe mystery novel, Fer-de-Lance. It was a one-hour B film, and then The League of Frightened Men was the second. These were not really good movies. My position is they do not feature Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. They feature two men who happen to have the same names. And after Rex Stout saw these people, Rex Stout said that this is not the quality I’m looking for. And he disallowed the making of any more Nero Wolfe movies, and none were made during his lifetime. Although there was an unsold TV pilot in 1959, which featured William Shatner as Archie Goodwin.

Sarah Harrison  10:57
No way!

Carolyn Daughters  11:03
The version we saw the guy playing Nero Wolfe did not look like Nero Wolfe. And then he was constantly leaping out of his chair to go across the room to look at this and look at that, and there was no beer. So I was like, Who is this guy? Very strange.

Ira Brad Matetsky  11:24
And at the end, Archie Goodwin says, I think it’s this movie, he says, Mr. Wolfe, are we done here? Because if we are I gotta go home to my wife. That’s not Archie Goodwin.

Carolyn Daughters  11:36
Amazing. So right off the bat, what I noticed in the book that we read, which is The League of Frightened Men, published in 1935, is the voice. Archie Goodwin’s voice is, I think, pretty incredible. I was riveted, and I felt throughout the reading that there is a mystery to be solved here. I’m engaged in the mystery. I am super interested in Nero Wolfe. All of those things would potentially prompt me to want to read more Nero Wolfe mystery books, but the thing that would really push me to want to do it is the voice. The voice is just super compelling. I want to hear what both of you think about Archie Goodwin and the way he talks and the way he narrates.

Sarah Harrison  12:31
Since you’ve read all of the books, is Archie the same person in every book? Does he have like changes that occur over time? Tell us more about Archie.

Ira Brad Matetsky  12:41
There are some changes over time. The characters don’t age much. And these Nero Wolfe mystery books were written by Rex Stout over a span of about 40 years. Fer-de-Lance, written in 1933, published in 1934, up to the last book, A Family Affair, which talks about Watergate, mid-70s. The characters do not really age. Rex Stout said, “I don’t want to be writing about a 90-year-old detective.” The books are set in the year they’re written. So there’s a little bit of an anachronism there and Rex Stout said, “if you can’t deal with it, don’t read the books.” He literally told that to one of his interviewers. Archie grows up a little. He uses some ethnic slurs in the first couple of books that he wouldn’t use in his career. He becomes a little more couth, a little more polished. But he’s basically the same character from the first book or here we have the second book throughout the career. And he is considered by many people to be Rex Stout’s greatest creation. Nero Wolfe is a great character, but some people call the Nero Wolfe mystery books the Archie books. And the Archie Goodwin character is considered by the historians of detective fiction, which I am really not one, as Rex Stout’s greatest contribution.

Ira Brad Matetsky  14:12

Let’s suppose you’re in the era of Arthur Conan Doyle, or the era of Edgar Allan Poe or even the era of Rex Stout. How are you going to tell a detective story? Think back to middle school English class when you’re learning about the types of narrators. It’s not going to be easy to tell the detective story through a first-person narrative with the detective as the narrator. Because you’re in the detective’s head, and you’re learning everything that the detective knows, and you’re getting every insight the detective has if you have a candid narrator. So you may have a great story, but it’s not going to be at “can you solve it” mystery. For the same reason, you’re not going to want to have an omniscient third-person narrator who’s in everybody’s head. That could be even worse. You’re going to want a narrator who’s not the detective but who’s close to the detective. And that was the convention as to how these stories were told. Dupin had his narrator. Sherlock Holmes, of course, had Dr. Watson. Dr. Thorndyke had Dr. Jervis. Hercule Poirot had Captain Hastings, and so on. These narrators were always a step behind the detectives. This was called in the technical literature of the detective story the “idiot friend” plot device. Now that’s a slur as a member of the John H. Watson society. I’m not stipulating that Watson was an idiot. Rex Stout’s observation was, why would this great detective spend this time being followed around by an “idiot”? He would be assisted by somebody who could help him or her in some way. So let’s have the great detective. Stout created this idea of a detective who’s not running around everywhere looking at everything. He will be assisted by somebody who’s not quite as intuitive or “smart” as the primary detective but is able to bring both substance to the narrative and tell a good story. That’s the Archie Goodwin character. He’s witty, he wisecracks, he’ll stand up to Nero Wolfe when it’s necessary. We learn later on in the Nero Wolfe mystery corpus, as distinguished from the Sherlockian canon. These books are the corpus both to have a different term and also because Nero Wolfe’s weight. And we learn that when Nero Wolfe has to go away for a while, Archie can run his own detective agency and solve cases by himself. We learn that one of Archie’s primary unwritten job duties is to nag Nero Wolfe into accepting cases when he’d rather just sit at home and read and drink beer. He is a great character and one that all of us like in that and that Rex Stout himself was very proud of.

Carolyn Daughters  17:37
Archie does seem very different from Hastings. From Dupin’s narrator, from Watson. He is more of a man of action. He is the guy on the ground, getting all of the work done bringing the information back to Nero Wolfe. I like Watson a lot and felt that Watson had a lot of agency, at least in some of the books and stories, but a Hastings or Dupin’s narrator are perhaps not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Ira Brad Matetsky  18:10
Even Watson, although I think the Bruce characterization is not what I think of as Dr. Watson from the canon. But every time Holmes says to Watson, would you go ahead of me and try and find out some information, Watson never gets it right. Watson is not a detective. He’s a doctor.

Carolyn Daughters  18:36
Or like in The Hound of the Baskervilles, where Watson is sent off, but part of it is to send him off. Holmes needed to get Watson out of the picture so he can go do some other things. But Watson is also getting some key information, little tidbits that help Holmes, whereas Hastings is really just flighty. And Dupin’s narrator often attaches himself to Dupin. We thought this, and we thought that, but the narrator does very little and seems to have very few thoughts of his own.

Ira Brad Matetsky  19:16
Archie has plenty of thoughts.

Sarah Harrison  19:19
He does. I love being in his head. He’s an amazing contrast to Nero Wolfe. As we’ve been reading along, as our listeners know, we started with Edgar Allan Poe and moved through the history of mystery. We recently reached a divergence where you have the British Sherlock Holmes type of novels, and then the hardboiled detectives came into the scene with like Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. When I was reading the Nero Wolfe mystery The League of Frightened Men, I felt like those two ideas had been combined. You have Nero Wolfe who sits in his chair and is very refined, very intelligent, quirky. And then you have Archie out there mixing it up, ready to punch somebody. But he was a contrast in himself, as well. He’s the hardboiled-type detective, but he’s also the personal secretary, who takes great shorthand, helps catalog all of the orchids, and just seems really adept. I wouldn’t see that go together,

Ira Brad Matetsky  20:28
I think you’ve put your finger on yet another of the reasons that we enjoy these novels. These are not what we’d call cozies on the one hand. On the other hand, this is not super hardboiled action. There were a couple of books later in the Wolfeian corpus, where Rex Stout wrote hardboiled scenes, I think just to show he could do it if he wanted to. Some people say these are their favorite scenes, and some people say they’re their least favorite scenes. But we’ve got something here in the middle. Incidentally, this is outside the world of the story, Rex Stout said at one point that he thought Dashiell Hammett was one of the greatest detective fiction writers. Three times in his career, he listed what he thought were the 10 best English language mystery novels. Each time a book by Hammett was on the list. There’s also a character in one of the Nero Wolfe short stories written in the late 40s, which who is clearly patterned on Hammett personally, not about his books politically, at a time when Hammond was serving a jail sentence for contempt of Congress. So it gets convoluted a little bit.

Carolyn Daughters  21:49
For me, it’s not these are not cozy mysteries. But there is an element of the cozy mystery in that he brings everybody into the room. All of the players enter that room and are all sitting or standing there. It’s that gathering of all the potential suspects or all the people involved in the case. It’s a handy convention. Agatha Christie does it very often. But that Poirot tactic of, hey, at 5pm I’m going to have everybody come into the room, and we’re going to all hash out the details of the case sort of thing. Nero Wolfe seems to borrow that.

Ira Brad Matetsky  22:35
Once again, you two are obviously very good and very astute at what you do, because you’re picking up from having read only one of the books so far on things that become conventions of this series. This is the first time that Nero Wolfe stages one of these shows, where he says, everyone come to my office. Sometimes he will call inspector Cramer of the NYPD and say, if you if you manage to corral all six of the suspects and bring them to me office, you’ll walk out with the murderer in handcuffs. This becomes a frequent trope in the series. In the Nero Wolfe mystery series, sometimes Nero Wolfe knows who the murderer is. Sometimes he doesn’t know. But he’s so confident in himself, that he’s confident that if all the suspects come and he’s allowed to talk to them for an hour, he’ll be able not only to figure out who did it but be able to give the police sufficient evidence to take somebody away. And it always works. I mean, there wouldn’t be a book if it didn’t. This is probably the first time we see something that we probably saw a forty times in the series as a whole.

Sarah Harrison  24:01
One of the things you mentioned as well at the beginning of what drew you to Rex Stout in the first place, I felt like really came across through Archie’s voice. It’s the witty dialogue. In a lot of the books we’ve read, I can tell they’re attempting witty dialogue, but I think sometimes it’s a different period in history and it doesn’t come across as witty. Whereas The League of Frightened Men to me did come across as really witty. And what Archie would say would be very funny. What he would record for us for Nero Wolfe saying back to him would also be very funny. Can you talk more about this dialogue?

Ira Brad Matetsky  24:41
It’s a highlight of the books, the dialogue, the characters. We wind up with a very familiar group of characters, each with their own well-defined personalities. Sometimes in the later books, some of the suspects or some of the people we meet may not be as sharply defined,. But we know we know exactly who Nero Wolfe is and what he is likely to do in a given situation and how he speaks. We certainly know who Archie Goodwin is. There are three detectives who assume who frequently assist Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. And we certainly know who they are and what they’re going to contribute to the case and their own styles of speaking. Saul Panzer in particular has some very good lines. The regular police characters, Wolfe’s lawyer, Wolfe’s doctor, the journalist that Wolfe works with all have their roles to play all become very familiar.

Ira Brad Matetsky  25:50

Some people say that the brownstone, the house where Nero Wolfe lives and works and where a lot of the action takes place plays such a role, that it’s almost a character in the stories itself in the sense of having a sense of place. A sense of Okay, we’re back home. All but four or five of the Nero Wolfe mystery novels are set in New York City. Manhattan of the mid-20th century is a strong motif throughout the books. The dialogue is a key part of it with the humor. The people who knew Rex Stout himself from his non-Wolfeington writings from his life as a public intellectual from his work as a Sherlockian — they know that Rex Stout himself was a very accomplished and very witty person. His daughter who came to the annual Wolfe Pack banquet for years said her dad would be working in his office — don’t disturb dad today, today’s a writing day. He would come to dinner, beaming, saying, “You’re not gonna believe what Archie Goodwin just said to Nero Wolfe.”

Carolyn Daughters  27:13
Is it true that through lots of research and maybe on-the-ground investigation, it has been determined where this building this brownstone must be located? I think that it’s been identified. You can stand outside the brownstone that is supposed to be the brownstone where Nero Wolfe lived and worked in the Nero Wolfe mystery series.

Ira Brad Matetsky  27:41
That’s a trope. A few years ago, the Wolfe Pack took a look. The brownstone is defined as being on West 35th Street. Now Rex Stout gave different street addresses for it. Sometimes it would be 922 West 35th Street, sometimes it would be 854 West 35th Street. These addresses, if you know how New York City addresses work, would be in the middle of the Hudson River. He did not want to provide a specific address. He knew that there’s no 221B Baker Street, or there wasn’t in the London of the 19th century. But Sherlockians spent a lot of time trying to figure out which building corresponded best to 221B, and people would ring the doorbell and say, “Is Sherlock Holmes here?” Generally, Sherlock Holmes was not there.

Ira Brad Matetsky  28:46

Rex Stout didn’t want to do that to anybody. So there’s no real equivalent to the brownstone. But most of the books seem to suggest that it was between say 9th and 10th Avenues. And so yes, some Wolfeians walked up and down the block and found which of the buildings had survived. And they said, Okay, this one seems to correspond most closely. Is it okay if we put a plaque on the wall, and the fairly bemused owner said, Okay, why not? I believe it’s 454 West 35th Street and see on the plaque of a building, “This is where Nero Wolfe solved his cases.” But it’s not a building that Rex Stout would have ever seen.

Carolyn Daughters  29:47
It did probably raise the real estate value of that building. I would guess, through the roof though.

Ira Brad Matetsky  29:53
When we put the plaque up, it was being used as a nonprofit temporary housing facility. So I don’t know that the building is ever going to be on the market. But it’s nice. We’ve also done tours. Rex Stout lived for a time in Greenwich Village, and a number of seems are the stories were set in Greenwich Village. So we’ve done a walking tour with a combination of places where action in the Nero Wolfe mystery book took place and places where things actually happened in Rex Stout’s life. That’s a little south of 35th.

Sarah Harrison  30:31
That’s actually really neat. How would someone take your walking tour if they were visiting New York?

Ira Brad Matetsky  30:38
Well, we offer it about once every four years. So don’t fly to New York and then call us. We have a website, nerowolfe.org, where you can find out information about our upcoming events and even join the Wolfe Pack and receive our newsletter and our publication.

Sarah Harrison  31:13
Awesome. I’m wondering too, you mentioned an early connection and interest was the fact that you also lived in Manhattan. How is it like reading about the Manhattan of that time and living in the Manhattan of your current time? Is there any feeling of familiarity there?

Ira Brad Matetsky  31:31
There is some familiarity, yes. The streets are the same. If he’s telling a suspect that he went up Fifth Avenue, I’ll know exactly where he is. A lot of real places are mentioned. A lot of places that are thinly disguised, but you can tell what they are. There are some clearly fictional places. Some of the places exist, some don’t. There were three restaurants that are mentioned in the Nero Wolfe corpus that still exist today. We’ve held events in a couple of them.

Sarah Harrison  32:10
What are those three restaurants?

Ira Brad Matetsky  32:12
Pietros, which is a steak and Italian place on the east side. Gallagher’s, which is a steakhouse on the west side, and Sardis, which is in the theater district. It was also where Rex Stout’s family held his surprise 75th birthday party. He was a bit annoyed that at this point he’s this award-winning creator of detective stories, but he could figure out that he was having a surprise party.

Carolyn Daughters  32:47
He walks in and everybody’s like, “surprise!” And he’s like, I really should have noticed this.

Ira Brad Matetsky  32:51
That literally happened. We have a recording and a program. Eighteen people from different walks of Rex Stout’s life each gave a talk about his contributions. His whole family were there. It was a lot of fun. And then occasionally, you can know too much about Manhattan. In the Nero Wolfe mystery series, Archie will say, I drove uptown on Fifth Avenue, and someone will say that’s impossible. Fifth Avenue is downtown only. One of our older members will Google it and determine that Fifth Avenue was only made one way in 1968. So it’s accurate in the 1950s that he could have driven uptown. I took the elevated the elevated line up Third Avenue. A lot of our younger members may not know that there ever was an elevated line on Third Avenue. There’s a story that takes place in Yankee Stadium. There are events that take place in Madison Square Garden, which was certainly a real place. Being familiar with Manhattan helps draw one into the stories, but it’s by no means indispensable. I don’t want anyone who’s listening to this and not in Manhattan thinking, since I’m not from New York, I’m never going to be able to get into the stories anymore that I would say that because I’m an American and only been to London once I’m not going to get Sherlock Holmes. It’s nice, but it’s hardly indispensable.

Carolyn Daughters  34:24
I find the details about Manhattan engaging, and I’m really into all of the details when they’re taking this road and that, they’re in this part of town, they’re in this building. I didn’t feel it was off putting at all. I’m certainly not an expert on New York City. But I love that Rex Stout, honored the city by really trying to capture details about this elevated line or this building or this restaurant.

Ira Brad Matetsky  34:56
He absolutely used the geography and also because the stories are set more or less in real time to when they were written, you get a little slice of history or current events. And one of my parlor games, I’m not gonna say it’s a deep academic research interest, is finding the actual events that inspire some of the stories. There’s a Nero Wolfe mystery novel set in 1946, right after World War Two. It talks about a rivalry between a government agency and a chamber of commerce type group. There was a real debate about whether rationing and price regulation should continue after the war, which Rex Stout is tapping directly into. In the first scene of Fer-de-Lance, the first book in 1933, they have not quite repealed Prohibition. They have not quite repealed Prohibition, but they are allowing a little more alcohol into the beer. So Nero Wolfe is tasting what was called 3.2% beer. That’s what people were doing then. The last book talks about Watergate, which was certainly on everybody’s mind in 1973- 1974. There’s a book where a character dies on the air during a radio show. Rex Stout was present in 1943 on a panel discussion during World War Two, when the writer Alexander Woollcott had a stroke and collapsed on the floor and practically died while they were on the air. He obviously adapted that for a book. A lot of tapping into current events, real time, real geography, and yet with the layer of fanciful characters and lots of murders.

Carolyn Daughters  37:07
In series, authors have to get the first book written, and sometimes they know they’re going to do a series and sometimes they’re just writing a book. They may not know if it’s going to be a series yet. But in many cases, in that first book, they’re figuring stuff out. These are who the main characters will be. This is where the stories will be set. These are how the mysteries are going to be structured. In your mind, what did Rex Stout figure out in Fer-de-Lance, and in what ways did that influence him? What changed in the books that would come?

Ira Brad Matetsky  37:46
That is a very profound question for this particular author. And I say that partly because I’m in the middle of researching that very topic for our next gazette. A tiny slice of Rex Stout’s biography. He was born in 1886. By the time he writes and publishes the first Nero Wolfe mystery novel, he’s already 47-48 years old. He writes The League of Frightened Men in 1935. He’s 48-49 years old. He had a very varied career as a young man, born in Indiana, moves at the age of nine months to Topeka, Kansas. He always said, when I was nine months old, my parents decided to move to Kansas. And after a difficult negotiation, I agreed to go with them. He grew up in Kansas and worked a variety of jobs as a young man, the most famous of which was a two-year stint as a yeoman on the presidential yacht in the Potomac. He was in the Navy. He worked as a writer. His first writing career was roughly 1912 to 1917. He wrote for some pulp magazines, for some slick magazines, did not publish any books, although a lot of the stories were written, collected, and published later.

Ira Brad Matetsky  39:11

He decides around 1917 that he’s not enjoying his writing career, because he’s writing what he thinks is going to sell. He’s writing for these magazines and not being paid very much, although he certainly supported himself on it. He’s gonna go out and make his fortune and then write the novels he wants to write. And he gets involved with his brother Robert in something called the school banking system. Older members may remember saving a penny a week, saving a nickel a week, put it in this book, we’ll bring it to the bank. He does very well, spends a couple of years in Paris, decides it’s time for me to start writing the great American novel. Meanwhile, he was invested in stocks, and 1929 comes along and he loses most of the money. But that’s the plan. Between 1939 and 1933, Rex Stout writes four very serious psychological novels. Deep characterization. Well-reviewed by the critics at the time. Far from bestsellers. A couple of them have just come back into print. One is called How Like a God, which is probably one of the first novels written in the second person. And it turns out there was a reason you don’t write a novel in the second person.

Carolyn Daughters  40:44
It’s super challenging.

Ira Brad Matetsky  40:46
Scene on the Wind, which Christopher Morley’s brother Frank said is written better than Hemingway. Spoiler alert, it’s not. Rex Stout is publishing some of these books through the Vanguard Press, which is a literary press in New York that he had helped to found in the 1920s. He’s getting good reviews but not making a lot of money. And he says, Okay, it’s time to try a detective story. Nobody knew at the time that it would be the Nero Wolfe mystery series. This was discovered about 10 years ago by a colleague of mine named Ross Davies, who collaborates with me on some Nero Wolfe research. In the 19 teens, Rex Stout had published a serialized murder mystery. Actually, two. One was slightly known in the All Story magazine. This one was completely obscure. It was published in Golfer’s Magazine. In the first of these two, he had a sedentary character and a running-around character. They had nothing really in common with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but the seed of the idea is there. In the second book, he uses the same method for committing the murder — I won’t spoil it — the same method for committing the murder in this book in this novel that was serialized in 1916 in this completely obscure magazine that he reused in Fer-de-Lance 18 years later. Nobody knew it. He either didn’t remember it or didn’t tell anyone. John McAleer, a professor of literature at Boston College, wrote an 800-page overly compendious biography of Rex Stout that was published in the 1970s. If you want to know what dates Rex Stout went to the dentist in 1962, this is the book for you. He had no idea that any of this had happened. 

Ira Brad Matetsky  42:57

As I say it’s 1933. Rex Stout decides to write Fer-de-Lance. Whether he started knowing that this is going to be a series or at least that he wanted it to be a series, we can’t tell. What we do know is that by the time the book is copyrighted a year later, it is copyrighted in the Library of Congress as Fer-de-Lance, a Nero Wolfe Mystery. And when it is published in the American magazine in 1934, which is where most of the stories were published, there were indications that it wasn’t going to be an orphan. Certainly by the time that’s published, we know we’re going to see these characters again. Over the next few years, Rex Stout experimented with other detectives. He wrote three books featuring a detective called Tecumseh Fox. He wrote one book featuring a female detective named Dol Bonner, who also reappears in a couple of the Nero Wolfe mystery books. He wrote a few other freestanding detective books, and he wrote a few more non-mystery novels. But by 1940-1941, it has become apparent to everyone, including Rex Stout, including the magazine editors, including his agent at the time, who was also his publisher, John Farrar — it has become apparent that Nero Wolfe is what people want to read from Rex Stout. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are what people want to read from Rex Stout. And he slows down his writing significantly during the war. He chairs the writers war board, which was an important public service. He was a very important public intellectual, quite aside from his detective fiction writing. But after World War II, when he writes fiction, he writes nothing else. He realizes that people want Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Very early, it becomes clear to him that Nero Wolfe is his ticket to literally fame and fortune.

Sarah Harrison  45:13
You’d mentioned before that he wanted to make his money and write what he wanted. Did he feel like locked back into doing what the public wanted when the public wanted Nero Wolfe, or did the interests align?

Ira Brad Matetsky  45:28
He accepted it very quickly. He did not like people who tried to pigeonhole detective fiction or mystery fiction as a second-class genre. In 1935, The New York Times reviewed The League of Frightened Men. And the mystery reviewer gave it a nice review. There was a second review of the second book in the Nero Wolfe mystery series by a more general interest reviewer, who said something to the effect of, “The characters are so well developed that we remember that Rex Stout was a legitimate novelist before he plied the path of mystery monger.”

Ira Brad Matetsky  46:02

Rex Stout was so annoyed by this, that he actually wrote a letter to the editor to the New York Times Book Review in the form of a poem, in which he wrote:

“Once I lived in humble hovels
And wrote a few legitimate novels.
Now, tiring of the pangs of hunger,
I ply the trade of mystery monger.
Murder, mayhem, gun and knife!
Violent death, my staff of life!
I wrote, though eating not bewhiles,
Of fate profound and secret trials.
Now–calmed the empty belly’s fury.
I write of guilt and trial by jury.
Suspense, excitement, thrills, suspicion,
Sources of excellent nutrition!
I took men’s souls on bitter cruises,
Explored the heart and necked the Muses.
But now to me I say: poor critter,
Be fed, and let who will be bitter.
Clues, deductions, right and wrong,
O Mystery! Of thee I mong!”

The first time he was invited to the Baker Street Irregulars dinner, he was invited to rebut an article by Somerset Maugham, who had written about how detective fiction was not a worthwhile endeavor. He was even more upset with a literary critic Edmund Wilson. Wilson wrote a series of essays for The New Yorker in the 1940s again saying detective fiction is not serious. The best known of these is called, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”

Carolyn Daughters  48:16
I’ve read that essay.

Ira Brad Matetsky  48:18
Rex Stout had no patience for this. If the public thought that these novels were worth reading, that they were worth reading. He was going to do the best job he could with them. And he was not going to let anyone characterize him as a second-class writer, because this is what his highest and best use turned out to be.

Carolyn Daughters  48:40
Good for him.

Sarah Harrison  48:42
Awesome. Yes, I read that poem, too. That’s a terrific place, I think, to wrap our first episode. Clearly, Ira Brad Matetsky is a wealth of knowledge about the Nero Wolfe mystery series, and so we’re gonna do a second episode coming up.

Carolyn Daughters  48:56
Yes, we’re so excited you’re going to be back for a second episode. And let me just point out, you can find information about The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout and all our 2024 book selections at teatonicandtoxin.com. Please share your thoughts on our website and on our Facebook and Instagram pages @teatonicandtoxin and subscribe to the podcast so you never miss an episode.

Sarah Harrison  49:21
Ira, if folks want to find you, how would they do that?

Ira Brad Matetsky  49:27
The best place to start would be the Wolfe Pack website, nerowolfe.org. They can find how to reach me by my Wolfeian email werowance@nerowolfe.org. But more important than finding me is finding the group at NeroWolfe.org.

Carolyn Daughters  49:37
You can learn about all our 2024 book selections at teatonicandtoxin.com. You can also comment, weigh in, and follow along with what we’re reading and discussing @teatonicandtoxin on Instagram and Facebook. And you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Sarah Harrison  49:57
Awesome. Thank you, Ira. We’re gonna talk to you more about the Nero Wolfe mystery The League of Frightened Men in just a minute. And until next time, please stay mysterious.

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