Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, May 23, 2014


Red Threads by Rex Stout (1939)

Nero Wolfe's antigonist New York Police Inspector Cramer (was he ever given a first name) takes on a case of his own in Red Threads, the only Rex Stout to place him as the lead detective.

Val Carew, a one-time Oklahoma gambler who made good on Wall Street, was deeply in love with his Cherokee Indian wife, Tsianina.  When she died, he used a portion of his riches to build a magnificent tomb for her; not Taj Mahal magnificent, mind you, but you get the impression that it was a near second. Carew visited the temple often and, being very superstitious, "consulted" his dead wife there on important business and personal decisions.  And it was there, in the tomb on the steps leading to his dead wife's glass-topped coffin, that his body was found bludgeoned and scalped.  The only clue was a piece of red thread clutched in Carew's hand.

The thread was a piece of bayata, an old Spanish yarn made with a vegetable dye from Persia in the sixteenh and seventeenth centuries.  The yard was used to make pants for Spanish soldiers at the time. When soldiers were killed by Indians, the Indians would take the pants, unravel the yard, and make blankets from it.  The yard, of course, is now very rare. but some was used to make a jacket gifted to Carew's son Guy in appreciation for charity work he had done for Indians in the West.  A couple of weeks after the murder, Guy had given the jacket to Jean Farris, a rising star in fabric design, to use in fashioning a skirt and jacket for herself.  Two weeks later, while wearing the newly made skirt and jacket, Jean is knocked unconscious and the clothing is stripped from her body and stolen.

Enter Inspector Cramer, called back from a long-overdue vacation to take charge of the case.  Although the crime was committed in another county, the New York Police Commissioner had agreed to put Cramer on the case because all the suspects lived in the city.

One of the main suspects is Guy, who inherited his father's fortune.  Another is Val Carew's fiancee who had had a short-lived affair with Guy eight years before.  And there is Jean who, despite having met Guy only weeks before, has decided she wants to marry him.  Other suspects present when Val Carew was murdered include Melville Barth, whose wife had invested his money in a fashion, business. his wife, who had left a moist peach pit near the crime scene, Leo Kranz, whose precarious financial position would be improved if a deal with Carew came through, Amory Buysse. the curator of the National Indian Museum that was endowed by Carew, and Woodrow Wilson, a stoic old Indian who worshiped the dead Tsianina.  Most of the suspects had reasons to stop Val Carew from marrying his fiancee.

Red herrings abound, false alibis are rife, and confusion reigns as Cramer plows through a miasma of deceit.  (Cramer even gets a couple of off-scene assists from his co-hort in the Nero Wolfe series, Sergeant Purley Stebbins.)  Red Threads is a good read enlivened by such interesting characters as the fearless and determined Jean, the clueless Guy, and the unflappable Woodrow Wilson.  Cramer himself comes across in a more humane light than we have previously seen him.

A somewhat weakish ending, but a good choice for those fans who have gone through the Wolfe canon.

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