Monday, May 06, 2024

Book: Early Stout

 The President Vanishes by Rex Stout (Originally published as Anonymous), Farrar & Reinhart, 1934.

Provenance: Purchase from Half-Price Books, off the shelf. I've pretty much tapped out the original Nero Wolfe series over the years, and have been wandering around the canon's periphery since.

Review: One of the challenges in following a writer for a particular series is that you might not always enjoy their other works as much. I have been a noticeable fan of the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout, but I've found his related Tecumseh Fox mysteries, which had the same level of twists and turns, to be less engaging than the domestic squabbles of corpulent detective Wolfe and his wisecracking leg-man Archie Goodwin. 

And there's a similar challenge with The President Vanishes. This one was written after the first Wolfe mystery, Fer-De-Lance, but was published first. And it much more a political thriller than a mystery. It was initially published anonymously, in part to create the impression that someone with strong political connections penned it, but that pseudonymous fig-leaf did not last long (a 1934 Times review points the finger strongly at Wolfe, and he admitted it a few years after publication). 

Here's the plot - Europe is at war, and some movers and shakers from the business community want in on the racket. They've got Congress, the Press, and a bunch of neo-nazis called the Grey Shirts, under the control of a charismatic leader Lincoln Lee all gunning for war. Against them we have the president, who is pacifistic and doesn't want to send US boys into battle. Then, right before a major vote on war, the president, well, vanishes. Kidnapping is assumed and there is a mad scramble of the various inhabitants of Washington to find him, as the powers-behind-the-throne push for the Vice President to step in or ignite a populist Grey Shirt rebellion. Either way gives them the war they want.

The book scatters its main characters, starting with a lobbyist working with the conspirators, then moving to the Secretary of War, who is in charge of the investigation, and finally settling on Chic Moffat, square-jawed, wise-racking Secret Service agent. He feels like an early draft of Archie Goodwin, but more willing to slug his girlfriend (Alma, a secretary for the First Lady) for her own good.  Stout also gets into the details of the Grey Shirts, their organization, secrets, and Lincoln Lee's patriotism. Lee is a true believer, and gets some dandy speeches, and Stout pulls it off well. 

The plot has its echoes in the past. The year before, a group of businessmen sought to launch a coup against FDR and install retired Major General Smedley Butler as a dictator. Butler dropped a dime on his co-conspirators, and this all came out about the time the book was written. Also, we have the earlier example of Woodrow Wilson being incapacitated, and his Vice President being unwilling to take the office. And we had our home-grown fascist groups, like the Silver Shirts in the Pacific Northwest. So there was some grounding on this.

The nature of the war itself (This was 1934) is left a bit vague. There are battles in Siberia. France is a opponent, and the US leans towards helping Germany, but the nature of the players and causes is left unexplained. Which makes sense because the action is all in Washington DC, and war, any war, will do. 

The book generated a movie of the same name, which also hit in 1934 (Paramount started filming before the book was published). There are a lot of demi-familiar faces from that age of the studio system, including Rosalind Russell in one of her early roles as well as perennial cowboy sidekick Andy Devine. The conflict is simplified a bit, but it pretty much follows the same beats as the book itself.

So how is it? Not bad, showing a lot of Stout's strengths with character and plot. But I'm pleased with the fact that Wolfe and Goodwin took off, and that there was a lot more them in the future.

More later,