The mystery of the one-book detective

Rex Stout is best known for the magnificent series of mysteries featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but early on he experimented with other detective characters. One of them was Tecumseh Fox, who rated three books between 1939 and 1941, including one (Bad for Business) whose plot was lifted nearly wholesale by Stout and re-set in the Wolfe universe as Bitter End (1940). I’ve only read one of these and it was fine; no match for the majesty of Nero and Archie in my eyes.

The other detective Stout created, Theodolinda Bonner, only has one book in her own name, but she lived on as a supporting character in several of the Wolfe stories. There are enough promising elements in Hand in the Glove (1937), her one star turn, to make me sort of wish she had gotten another shot at the spotlight later on. “Dol” is a young woman whose life takes an abrupt left turn when her affluent father loses all his money and kills himself. Determined to never again rely on a man for anything, Dol sets herself up in business as a licensed private detective, with the help of her friend and partner, the still-affluent (though not yet of age) Sylvia Rattray.

Sylvia’s guardian, P.L. Storrs, disapproves of her foray into such a tawdry occupation as private eye and pressures her to give it all up. She reluctantly agrees to do so, and when the guardian turns up dead suspicion falls on Dol, who would seem to be the main victim of his social prudishness. But it turns out there are other folks scattered around the wealthy enclaves of upstate New York who might have had their own reasons for wishing themselves rid of Mr. Storrs.

If you read Golden Age mysteries you know you’re going to encounter a fair bit of sexism, certainly. But this passage of Storrs talking about his grown daughter Janet is really something: 

I am a complete failure with my daughter. I have never yet understood one word of anything she has ever said, and only my own vanity has kept me persuaded that she may be sane. And yet she has poetry published in magazines, and she graduated from a college … but she can’t add, I’ve noticed that.

And then there’s the narrator’s description of Janet’s mom, who granted is portrayed as a ditz of the first order, but does she deserve this?

She was not young nor slender, but neither was she unwieldy or misshapen.

To be honest, the plot in this one is a bit of a mess but the characters of Dol and Sylvia were engaging enough that I would have willingly read more of their adventures. Alas, it was not to be, and I had to settle for making Archie Goodwin my first and still favorite literary boyfriend.

Published by Julia

I learned to read before I started kindergarten, and I haven't stopped yet.

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