Friday, November 26, 2010

Three Men Out by Rex Stout

Three Men Out by Rex Stout, 1955

Although not particularly well known to contemporary readers, Rex Stout and his series of Nero Wolfe novels are a crucial step in the establishment of the mystery/crime genre. They're also enormous fun: neatly plotted, engagingly written, funny and devastatingly well-characterized.

When Stout first started writing the series, there were two basic kinds of crime fiction: the English "drawing-room" mysteries, as written by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, and the hard boiled American pulp/noir, as written by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Stout ingeniously combined the two with the characters of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Wolfe, a snobby, brilliant gourmand and eccentric who leaves his Manhattan brownstone on only the rarest of occasions, is very much an old-school detective in the style of Hercule Poirot.

His assistant and companion, Archie Goodwin, is a street-smart man of action with a charmingly laconic style of narrating the adventures of his sedentary employer. He's not a Watson who stays on the sidelines of the story either; he's usually right in the thick of it.

These two and their wonderfully structured life in Wolfe's huge house are a perfect framework for Stout's plots, which, like the main characters, are an offbeat mixture of the old and new.

About half of the books in the Wolfe saga are novels. The rest are books containing three or four short novellas. Three Men Out has three middling-length novellas in it and they're all excellent. Stout's style is better suited to tighter, shorter stories; his full-length novels can sometimes drag.

The first entry, "Invitation to Murder," is probably the weakest overall, but it's still a crackerjack tale of crime. The novella's middle sags a tad and the mystery is not as intriguing as could be, but when Wolfe arrives on the scene things perk up significantly.

Number two, "The Zero Clue," is even better, a crisp, entertaining narrative that forces the fastidious Wolfe to put up with a house full of policemen, as well as his nemesis, Inspector Cramer. The puzzle would be pretty much impossible for the layman to unravel, but it's terrific fun to watch Wolfe do it.

"This Won't Kill You," the final story in the book, nicely represents what makes the series so unusual. In one novella we have classic body-in-the-library mystery (there's a dramatic unveiling with all suspects present; Wolfe must solve the crime in a single location), hard boiled pulp (Archie's take-down of a possibly insane druggist armed with sulphuric acid) and a dollop of pure originality (the whole affair takes place at a baseball park).

All three novellas have tropes and devices in common--like Christie, Stout loves to develop a small group of suspects--but unlike many mystery writers, Stout has a knack for keeping his plots fresh, rather than just re-doing the same story over and over.

His prose, as narrated by Archie Goodwin, is quirky and entertaining. A few awkward, outdated words and phrases present themselves to the modern reader, but in a way that adds to the charm. Stout is very good at characters and his dialogue is fast-paced and believable, as is Archie's inner monologue. It's always nice to find a writer who can mix wonderful stories with prose that goes beyond the ordinary. In this passage, a potential client is being interviewed by Wolfe:

Weighing rather less than half as much as Nero Wolfe, he was lost in the red leather chair three steps from the end of Wolfe's desk. Comfortably filling his own outsized chair behind the desk, Wolfe was scowling at the would-be client, Mr. Herman Lewent of New York and Paris. I, at my desk with notebook and pen, was neutral, because it was Friday and I had a weekend date, and if Lewent's job was urgent and we took it, good-bye weekend.

Wolfe, as usual when solicited, was torn. He hated to work, but he loved to eat and drink, and his domestic and professional establishment in the old brownstone house on West Thirty-fifth Street, including the orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, had an awful appetite for dollars. The only source of dollars was his income as a private detective, and at that moment, there on his desk near the edge, was a little stack of lettuce with a rubber band around it. Herman Lewent, who put it there, had stated that it was a thousand dollars.
---(page 3)

Wittier than Christie, more character-based than Doyle, more elegant than the pulp authors of the period, Stout is a wonderful find for the consummate mystery lover, as is Three Men Out, a sharp, focused collection of very good stories.

The Wolfe/Archie series as a whole is quite excellent, and so much fun to follow. Like P.G. Wodehouse (who was a friend and admirer of Stout's), Stout has created a whole universe teeming with recurring characters and little nods to previous adventures. Three Men Out is an exceedingly strong, highly entertaining installment in the ongoing saga.

NEXT UP: Probably The Fiery Cross. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, 1599

What always astonishes me after reading a Shakespeare play is how incredibly relevant they still are. A lot of the literature from Shakespeare's day and even farther back is a kind of historical curiosity, a document to be examined for facts, not something to be read for enjoyment.

Shakespeare isn't like that. Remove some of the flowery language and old-fashioned stage directions, and you have a story as fresh and vibrant as any being currently written, and strikingly complex characters.

The story is well-known. In the time of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar slowly gained power. Many thought he would declare himself emperor, and a small group of concerned political figures decide to assassinate him.

Julius Caesar, like many of Shakespeare's historical tragedies, is a masterpiece of political morality and torn loyalties. It's an impressively timeless story.

Caesar is the play's central figure, but not the protagonist. Honorable, conflicted statesman Brutus is the hero of the play, but even he is no flawless piece of cardboard. He is perennially doubtful--of Caesar, of the conspirators, of himself. By the end of the play, he is honored as the only one of Caesar's assassins who truly committed a selfless act, but Shakespeare leaves even this ambiguous.

There really are no "good guys" or "bad guys" in Julius Caesar. Even though Mark Antony is the de facto antagonist, he's not really worse than anyone else in the play. His famous speech to the Roman people is pure political genius and one of the play's high points.

Like Hamlet, the play's first half deals with doubt, indecision and difficult choices. The second half, after Caesar's death, is a more standard tragedy, as the various conspirators deal with the aftermath of their fateful decision. Most of the main characters are dead by the end of the play, several by their own hand.

One of the play's more intriguing characters is the shifty, brilliant Cassius, a man whose ruthlessness and ambiguity links him to such characters as Iago and Richard III. Shakespeare never quite tells us his motivation. He spearheads the plan to kill Caesar and seems to espouse Brutus's philosophy, yet it's never quite clear whether he is acting for noble reasons or selfish ones. That's part of the genius of Shakespeare: we are not just enjoying the story, we're actively trying to figure out the character's true psychology and motivations.

Atypically for Shakespeare, there are only a few characters in Julius Caesar that seem to warrant much analysis. Though the cast is large, only Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Casca and Caesar have long passages to themselves. The rest of the characters merely support the framework of the story; there are no scene-stealing minor characters like the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet or Margaret from Richard III.

Julius Caesar is heavy on speeches, especially during the first two-thirds (the last part of the play leans more towards give-and-take dialogue). There is Antony's famous speech to the masses and Brutus's oration which directly precedes it, as well as several speeches among the conspirators, as they try to convince each other, and themselves, of the worthiness of their cause and the way in which they should go about it. Here is Brutus addressing the conspiracy at his home (Cassius has just suggested killing both Caesar and Antony):

Brutus: Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius,

To cut the head off and then hack the limbs,

Like wrath in death and envy afterwards;

For Antony is but a limb of Caesar:

Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers, Caius.

We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,

And in the spirit of men there is no blood:

O, that we then could come by Caesar's spirit,

And not dismember Caesar. But, alas,

Caesar must bleed for it! And, gentle friends,

Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully,

Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods,

Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds:

And let our hearts, as subtle masters do,

Stir up their servants to an act of rage

And after seems to chide 'em. This shall make

Our purpose necessary and not envious:

Which so appearing to the common eyes,

We shall be called purgers, not murderers.

And for Mark Antony, think not of him;

For he can do no more than Caesar's arm

When Caesar's head is off.
(pages 29-30, Wordsworth Classic edition)

One of the many delicious things about this speech is the heavy irony, which is only apparent after the end of the play. Though Brutus claims that Antony will be powerless without Caesar, Antony steadily grows in power throughout the play, eventually routing the conspirators and personally causing the suicide of Brutus. Although Brutus is noble and wise, Shakespeare still allows him to make a staggering mistake that will eventually cost him everything.

That's not to say that Brutus was necessarily wrong in stopping his fellows from killing Antony. Their plan was to assassinate Caesar, and Caesar alone. No others were to be harmed. Had the conspirators murdered Antony as well, their position would have been far less morally defensible. Though all the conspirators claim high and noble reasons for killing Caesar, Brutus is the only one who was unwilling to kill another man in addition. Was the whole enterprise truly for good or for evil?

It's food-for-thought moments like these that make Julius Caesar such a great work and Shakespeare such an utterly superior storyteller. The play is a staggering masterpiece of politics, psychology and philosophy. It's also a rich, intelligent story that still has power and relevance today, perhaps even more so.

NEXT UP: I take a break from heavy classics and fat historical novels with mystery author Rex Stout and Three Men Out.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett, 1983

Like Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Terry Pratchett's series of genre-skewering Discworld novels have amassed a rabid cult of fans. The Discworld series is complex, interconnected and rather daunting at first glance, but I was pleased to find that the first volume, The Color of Magic, stands well on its own.

It's also the most delightful romp through a wacky fantasy world since the Oz books. The novel is fast, funny and utterly original. It gleefully mocks the tropes and cliches of the fantasy genre while developing a universe that works as more than a platform for jokes.

When naive tourist Twoflower arrived in the sprawling city of Ankh-Morpork, he soon falls in with the wizard Rincewind, who he employs as his tour guide. Unfortunately for Twoflower, Rincewind is quite possibly the "most incompetent wizard in the known universe."

Together, Rincewind and Twoflower travel the Discworld, stumbling into misadventure after misadventure, including an encounter with a Lovecraftian monster, a run-in with a nation of dragonriders living on an upside-down mountain and nearly becoming human sacrifices for the Disworld's first space voyage.

The book is terrific fun. It is amazing for the sheer audacity of its scope and the inspired lunacy of Pratchett's creatures and cultures. Hydrophobic wizards? The deadly number eight? A living piece of homicidal Luggage? One author hasn't created this many memorable concepts since Adams's first Hitchhiker's novel.

Pratchett is also a fabulous wordsmith in the grand tradition of P.G. Wodehouse. His fantastical prose is just a pleasure to read, as is his witty dialogue:

Twoflower sat down on an ornate mother-of-pearl chair with a glass of oily wine in one hand and a crystallized squid in the other. He frowned.

"I think I've missed something along the way," he said. "First we were told we were going to be slaves--"

"A base canard!" interrupted Garhartra.

"What's a canard?" asked Twoflower.

"I think it's a kind of duck," said Rincewind from the far end of the long table. "Are these biscuits made of something really nauseating, do you suppose?"

"--and then we were rescued at great magical expense--"

"They're made of pressed seaweed," snapped the Guestmaster.

"--but then we're threatened, also at a vast expenditure of magic--"

"Yes, I thought it would be something like seaweed," agreed Rincewind. "They certainly taste like seaweed would taste if anyone was masochistic enough to eat seaweed."

"--and then we're manhandled by guards and thrown in here--"

"Pushed gently," corrected Garhartra.

"--which turned out to be this amazingly rich room and there's all this food and a man saying he's devoting his life to making us happy," Twoflower concluded. "What I'm getting at is this sort of lack of consistency."

"Yar," said Rincewind. "What he means is, are you about to start being generally unpleasant again? Is this just a break for lunch?"
---(pages 182-183)

Just as much fun as the crazy creatures and amusing wordplay are the characters themselves. Even though Rincewind and Twoflower are in the middle of pure insanity, they both really start to endear themselves to you. The hapless, anti-heroic Rincewind is just hilarious and Twoflower's wide-eyed innocence is a perfect counterbalance. The supporting characters are excellent, too: Hrun the Barbarian, who struggles to count to three, Kring the talking sword, Death himself, the aforementioned Luggage.

The book isn't entirely without flaws. The opening segment is the weakest, and doesn't do the best job of integrating the novice reader into Discworld. Pratchett's writing has a distinctive, purely original rhythm that takes time to get used to; it can be jarring at first.

But once you're immersed, The Color of Magic is a smart, fast-paced joy to read. It's very funny, sometimes hilarious, but it also creates characters and a world that genuinely work as more than just a joke machine. I definitely look forward to visiting the Discworld again.

NEXT UP: I am currently working through both The Brothers Karamazov and Diana Gabaldon's fifth Outlander book, The Fiery Cross. They're both huge books, and it's been a slow reading month. The very next one I review will probably be Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.