Get Blog Posts Via Email

View RSS Feed


Posts Tagged ‘eccentric detective’


My definition of a Golden Oldie is a mystery I’ve read at least two or three times and can’t wait to read again. By that standard The League of Frightened Men is 21 karats.

Rex Stout, one of the absolute masters of the Golden Age of mysteries, wrote more than fifty mysteries featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. For the uninitiated, Wolfe was the quintessential eccentric detective–middle-aged, hugely overweight, handshake-avoiding, woman-distrusting, and agoraphobic.  Goodwin is his assistant–probably two decades younger, good-looking, a great dancer, and the “legs,” if not the “eyes,” of Wolfe.

The story opens with Wolfe telling Goodwin that while the latter was away on a job, a man named Andrew Hibbard had come to the office to ask Wolfe to protect him from assassination. However, Hibbard refused to give Wolfe the name of the man he was afraid of and insisted that he didn’t want the man arrested or punished, simply stopped.

Hibbard’s story is that there were a group of friends at Harvard more than twenty-five years before who inadvertently injured this man when he also was a student there.  As a result this man had had several operations and now, years later, still walked with a pronounced limp. The group had done whatever they could to help this man, financially and emotionally, for years, but the accident still burdened many of them.  Only recently had this man found his talent, and he was now a successful novelist and playwright.  However, in their guilty state, the men years ago had decided to call themselves The League of Atonement, a name which still stuck.

Recently, while at the Harvard graduation of the son of one of the League members, a group of these men and the injured man had been walking together along ocean cliffs late at night.  The next morning, one of the men was found at the bottom of the cliff.  And two days after that, the remaining members had received a poem which they all agreed came from the crippled man, which said he had killed the League member and was going to kill all the others.

Then, several months later, another member of the group died.  The police declared it suicide, but a follow-up poem allegedly by the injured man and saying that there would be more deaths had prompted Hibbard to come to Wolfe for protection.

Wolfe explained that he could not agree to be a bodyguard but would agree to remove the threat, but Hibbard vetoed this.  The meeting ended.  Then, when Goodwin returns to the office several days after Hibbard and Wolfe’s meeting, he casually mentions an article in the newspaper about a man who had written a book the district attorney wanted declared obscene.  This pricks Wolfe’s memory, and he sends Goodwin out to buy a copy of the book.  After he’s read it, he realizes that the injured man Hibbard was talking about is the book’s author, Paul Chapin.

Wolfe gets in touch with the remaining members of the League of Atonement and promises to remove the Chapin threat for a huge fee, payable only if he succeeds.  The majority of the men agree, although some are still hounded by their guilt and fearful of wronging Chapin again.  And then Chapin himself enters Wolfe’s office.  Talking to Wolfe, “he got into (his voice) a concentrated scorn that would have withered the love of God.”

Stout’s book is a masterful psychological study.  To those who know and love Wolfe and Goodwin, this book is absolutely one of the best in the series.  If you’ve never read Rex Stout, this novel is the perfect one with which to start.

You can read more about Rex Stout at