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Title: The League of Frightened Men
Series: Nero Wolfe #2
Author: Rex Stout
Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars
After reading a controversial new novel by an author called Paul Chapin, Nero Wolfe reveals to Archie Goodwin that he has been approached by Andrew Hibbard, a psychologist fearing for his life. Hibbard had received threatening poems from an individual he refused to name, but after reading a phrase in Chapin’s book that also appeared in the poems, Wolfe has deduced that the man Hibbard feared is Chapin. Wolfe orders Archie to contact Hibbard to offer Wolfe’s services, but when Archie does so he learns that Hibbard has disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Hibbard is a member of “the League of Atonement”, a group of college friends who once played a prank on Chapin that, to their lingering shame and remorse, left him permanently crippled. In addition to Hibbard’s disappearance, two other members of the group have also died under mysterious circumstances, and both Hibbard’s niece Evelyn and the police suspect that Chapin has murdered them. Wolfe acquires a list of the other men in the League and summons them to his office, where he proposes to both determine the truth behind the deaths of their mutual friends and remove the threat that they believe Chapin poses. The meeting is interrupted by Chapin himself, who claims innocence in the affair but refuses to provide evidence when Wolfe challenges him to do so. This prompts the League to agree to Wolfe’s terms.
Wolfe has Archie arrange for Chapin to be tailed as closely as possible, a search for Hibbard to be conducted, and the two deaths to be investigated. Archie discovers that another member of the League, Dr. Leopold Elkus, is also tangentially involved in the two deaths and, as Elkus is sympathetic to Chapin, begins to suspect that he is helping him commit the murders. He also discovers the existence of a mysterious man with gold teeth and a pink tie who also appears to be tailing Chapin. On bringing this man to Wolfe, they discover it is in fact Andrew Hibbard. Hibbard, driven to desperation by his fear and paranoia of Chapin, had faked his death and begun following Chapin to work up the courage to murder him.
Soon after, Paul Chapin is arrested for the sudden murder of Dr. Loring Burton, who is both a fellow member of the League and the man who married the woman Chapin was in love with. This prompts Wolfe to take the drastic step of leaving his home to consult with Chapin, while Archie gains the trust of Burton’s wife and learns that Dora Chapin, the wife of Paul Chapin and Burton’s former house-maid, had visited Burton before he was murdered. Believing Dora to be the murderer, Archie attempts to confront her but is taken by surprise, drugged, and incapacitated.
Upon regaining consciousness, Archie is alarmed to discover that Dora Chapin has apparently kidnapped Wolfe. On receiving a message from Wolfe, however, he learns that Wolfe has convinced Dora Chapin that he poses no threat to her husband and does not believe him to be guilty of murder. Wolfe then summons the members of the League to his office, where he produces Hibbard and reveals a confession he has apparently received from Paul Chapin. To the League’s surprise the letter confirms, as Wolfe suspected all along, that Chapin had no involvement in the deaths of their two mutual friends at all. The deaths were an unfortunate accident and a suicide respectively, but Chapin, psychologically incapable of murder but resentful of his friends for both their responsibility for his injury and their pity towards him, sent the poems to scare his friends and gain his vengeance on them that way.
Incredulous and skeptical of Wolfe’s claims, the League vote on whether to pay Wolfe. When the vote indicates that Wolfe will not receive his fee, Wolfe presses one member—Ferdinand Bowen, a stockbroker—to change his vote. When Bowen refuses, Wolfe reveals that Bowen is in fact Burton’s murderer. Burton had discovered that Bowen had been embezzling from him and other members of the League whose investments he managed, and Bowen used the fear and paranoia that everyone had of Chapin to stage Burton’s murder and throw suspicion on Chapin. Bowen is arrested, leaving Archie to realise that Chapin’s letter was faked. His vengeance thwarted, Chapin reveals to Wolfe that he will be basing a character on Wolfe in a forthcoming novel, and that character will meet a very unpleasant end.
Another thoroughly enjoyable read.
I skipped the introduction, as I found that the people who do that kind of thing are idiots and either spoil the heck out of the book OR are wannabe freuds and everything is about sex, even when it isn’t. My life is better when I just read the book for myself instead of being told what it is supposed to mean by some hack.
I do have to admit, I didn’t understand why everyone was so afraid of Chapin, the supposed villain of this particular story. A self-absorbed, selfish crippled gimp who is still in love with a woman who has been married for decades and has his own wife steal things from her? Of course, with him “claiming” to have done the murders through anonymous letters, you could see why they were concerned. But afraid? Ask Chapin to his face and get a yes or no. If you can’t, then you kill him yourself. Man, nobody in that group had one pair of balls between them all. Shameful. Thankfully, the title alerted me to what I was getting into so I didn’t get too steamed up about the group’s lack of manhood, but still, it was a sore point for me.
I did end up laughing out loud at the shenanigans Wolfe got up to at the end. What a dirty money grubber. I’m hoping he refutes his own statement about letting murderers go free if he’s not paid to catch them by future actions. If not, this series might have a much smaller chance of survival with me than expected.