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:
whose farm in Westchester County was usually host to many odd, non-paying guests.
who appeared to have a habit of leaving things at the scene of murders.
her uncle, who was thought by the police to have left a bullet at the scene of one murder--in the victim.
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.
Publisher: Dell, 1939 (first published in hardcover, Viking, 1939)
Length: 236 pages
Series: Tecumseh Fox
Setting: Westchester County, New York
Genre: Mystery, Private Investigator