It’s been a while since I’ve read a Nero Wolfe mystery, though I recall reading many of them in my younger days. I greatly enoyed Tim Hutton’s recent TV series of Nero Wolfe mysteries though, so when putting together a series of classic mysteries set in NYC for one of my mystery groups, I decided to include one I’d never read.
The League of Frightened Men was the second book about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin that Rex Stout wrote, the year after Fer de Lance. As many critics have pointed out, the pairing of the traditional, super-smart detective in the Sherlock mode (Wolfe) with the wisecracking, more hard-boiled detective (Goodwin) was a stroke of genius on Stout’s part. Much of the humor in the books, including League of Frightened Men, comes from the banter between the two, and their very different ways of speaking and looking at the world.
The problem with this book, however, is in the characterization. While the central figure in the case, Paul Chapin, is given a full and rather creepy personality, and his wife Dora an even creepier one, most of the other characters are one-dimensional (Ayers, the drunken reporter; Drummond the effete florist etc.) or indistinguishable. I found myself constantly having to look back to the list of men on page 30-something to see who was who – and, most frustrating, the list was in no discernible order.
The plot is clever though, with some twists I didn’t see coming (though several of the people in my book group claim they did). And, of course, it’s always fun when Wolfe calls everyone together at the end to name the murderer.