Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Double for Death: Rex Stout


Before settling into writing only Nero Wolfe mysteries, Rex Stout wrote several non-mystery novels and a few standalone mysteries. He also wrote a series of three books starring Tecumseh Fox, a private investigator in Westchester County, New York. Double for Death, published in 1939, is the first mystery in the Tecumseh Fox series.

Rich at Past Offences has continued a challenge started in June. In June, bloggers who participated posted about books published in 1963. Now, for the month of July, bloggers are invited to post about books or movies from 1939. This is my entry for that challenge.

Per William L. DeAndrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, "(William) Tecumseh (Sherman) Fox was based on Stout himself, similar to Nero Wolfe only in mental acuity and the animal inspirations for their names. Fox is lean and active and lives some miles north of New York City."



I have only two copies of Double for Death. The pictured version is a Dell mapback, and the back has a map of Maple Hill, an estate which figures in the mystery. In addition to special maps drawn for each title, the Dell mapback editions had a list of characters with brief descriptions and special chapter titles. For Double for Death, the main characters listed were described thusly:

TECUMSEH FOX,
whose farm in Westchester County was usually host to many odd, non-paying guests.

NANCY GRANT,
who appeared to have a habit of leaving things at the scene of murders.

ANDY GRANT,
her uncle, who was thought by the police to have left a bullet at the scene of one murder--in the victim.

RIDLEY THORPE,
wealthy financier with an unblemished reputation and also a very private cottage in the woods.


This is a fairly short book. The mapback copy has 236 pages; the copy I read had 191 pages (tinier print). Yet within those pages are a lot of plot twists, many characters, and a lot of disagreements with the police and the district attorney of the county. (The confrontations with the police and DA are also often elements in the Nero Wolfe plots.) The Fox series differs in the narrative voice (told in third person). Fox is strongly involved in the investigation, unlike Wolfe. Fox does have a leg man; but his "vice president" Dan Pavey just does the grunt work and often makes things worse rather than being helpful.

The story begins with Nancy Grant arriving at Fox's home (also called "the Zoo"), seeking his help in extricating her uncle from being accused of murder. For some inexplicable reason,  her uncle visited Ridley Thorpe at his cabin to beg for his job back, and claims to have found Thorpe's dead body. The police believe he was the murderer. Fox has been acquainted with Nancy's uncle, Andy Grant, in the past and agrees to look into the problem.

If I remember correctly, most of the early non-Wolfe mysteries feature a romance. Double for Death has two. A few mysteries in the Wolfe series have romances. In all cases, the romances are very much a side issue and don't intrude on the mystery plot at all.

I would not rate this mystery anywhere near the quality of the Nero Wolfe stories, but I still found it entertaining. There were clues to the identity of the murder, but they were hidden enough to fool me. Stout considered the plot of Double for Death to be one of his best. Comparing it to many other Golden Age mysteries, I think it holds up well. Stout's characters are often eccentric or wacky, but that is not unusual for mysteries of that time.

While I was investigating this book, I ran into a second mapback edition. The one I have is #9, a very early mapback. This one is #495. The front cover is not as appealing to me, although the cover artist is Robert Stanley, who was a well known cover artist for paperbacks of that era. The map on the back of that edition is very nice, showing Long Island Sound and the locations of Fox's home and Maple Hill (Thorpe's estate). Since I collect various covers for Rex Stout books and Dell mapback editions for any authors, I have now ordered a copy of that edition of the book. You can see that cover (front and back) here.

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Publisher: Dell, 1939 (first published in hardcover, Viking, 1939)
Length:    236 pages
Format:    paperback
Series:     Tecumseh Fox
Setting:    Westchester County, New York 
Genre:      Mystery, Private Investigator

25 comments:

  1. Tracy, well done on completing another challenge - I'm couldn't find my 1939 possibles so ordered something else and am waiting for it to arrive! I love the top cover, but I'm not going to read any more Stout other than the one I bought recently.

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    1. Col, many vintage covers are really cool. Although I enjoyed this book, I would only recommend it to vintage mystery devotees. I hope you like the one you have... when you read it.

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  2. Tracy - Nice choice. Because the Nero Wolfe series is so popular, I think it's easy to forget that Stout did other stories too, among them this series.

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    1. Margot, Reading this makes me want to reread more of these non-Wolfe books by Rex Stout. At least they are short and quick reads.

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  3. You have to watch out when you use Dell mapbooks. A number of them were abridged (sometimes severely) without notice to the reader. I compared my hardcover copy of Helen McCloy's The Man in the Moonlight with the Dell map book edition. I found that there were six deletions in the Dell edition on the first page alone.

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    1. I was not aware of that, but I don't usually read my mapback editions anyway. I usually have another edition of the books.

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  4. I wasn't aware of these other Rex Stout books - I knew about Nero Wolfe, and wasn't there a female detective, something like Doll Bonner? This is interesting as being different, and a great choice for your 1939 book.

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    1. Yes, Moira, there is one Dol Bonner novel, The Hand in the Glove. She also featured in one Tecumseh Fox novel (I had forgotten that), and several Wolfe novels and novellas.

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  5. Interesting. I've heard of the Fox books, but have never read one, never even seen one.
    Are they witty like the Wolfe books? That is one of the attractions for me.

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    1. Kathy, I would say that they are not as witty as the Wolfe books. I guess they are hard to find because they have not been reprinted like the Wolfe books.

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  6. The covers on your posts this week are so vivid, Tracy! I'm planning on a 1939 read too, and I will take the last two weeks of the month to get to it. Thanks for featuring this new-to-me title.

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    1. Rebecca, many of the artists for the Dell mapbacks did beautiful work. Some of the copies I have are not in such good condition, but this one is. I am looking forward to your 1939 post.

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  7. Thanks TracyK - fan that I am of Stout (and really, who isn't?) I have only read the Wolfe/Goodwin - apparently some of the Fox books we re-written as Wolfe stories ...

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    1. Sergio, I know that an early Wolfe novella, Bitter End, was a version of Bad for Business, a Fox novel. I have read both but it has been so long, I don't remember much about them.

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  8. Tracy, I'd first like to acquaint myself with Nero Wolfe before I read anything else by Rex Stout. This one sounds like a nice little mystery.

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    1. I agree, Prashant, go with Nero Wolfe first. And there are a lot of those ...

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  9. Oh, I love that cover! This sounds to me like it has just enough romance. If I pick up a book that's in the romance genre, I prefer that the romance stay a subplot :)

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    1. Katie, those vintage mystery covers were often very nice. These are the cases where I buy the book as much for the cover as the contents.

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  10. Thanks for letting me know about this, Tracy. I've only ever read one non-Nero Wolfe book: ALPHABET HICKS (Thanks to John.) but I would love to read this one. Must look for a copy. Well, I make up for it by having read all the Nero Wolfe books, most more than twice.

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    1. Me too, Yvette, I think I have read the Nero Wolfe novels more times than the novellas, so I should concentrate on those. I want to re-read the Alphabet Hicks book also.

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  11. I really, really, need to read Rex Stout and plan to *this year* and one of his Nero Wolfe books is in the top 100 Crime Novel list- The Doorbell Rang. Terrific review, Tracy.

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    1. Thanks, Keishon. The Doorbell Rang is a very good mystery, and more up-to-date than some, as it was published in 1965. The Nero Wolfe books are not to everyone's taste, but it would be good for you to try one or two and see what you think.

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  12. TracyK: I do not think I have read this Fox mystery. I have read one of them. What I recall is that while it was alright the Nero Wolfe books were so much better I have never looked for any more Fox mysteries.

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    1. You are right, Bill. The Nero Wolfe books are definitely better and there are so many of them. I read recently that Gail Bowen is a big Rex Stout / Nero Wolfe fan.

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  13. Definitely read The Doorbell Rang, Nero Wolfe up against the FBI. A lot of fun.
    I would start with Fer-de-Lance, the first Wolfe book, to get a flavor of the characters. It's a good one.

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