Double for Death by Rex Stout (1939)
Ridley Thorpe, an aloof and overbearing financier, values his privacy. Each weekend he retreats to a remote cottage where no one, not even his children are allowed to go. The only exception is his long-serving valet. Andrew Grant is a failed writer who recently turned to advertising. Grant proposed an ad campaign for his firm's biggest client, Thorpe's company, which was soundly rejected by Thorpe's board of directors. As a result, Grant was fired. Feeling the campaign was the best work he had ever done, Grant was determined to present it to Thorpe himself. With his niece Nancy, Grant goes to Thorpe's cottage one night to confront him. As they approach, someone fires from the woods through the window and kills Thorpe. Thorpe's valet soon drives off, vanishing and leaving Grant and Nancy with the corpse.
This is a high-profile murder and the District Attorney and a colonel of the state police are both anxious to put it behind him. The DA is prone to jumping to conclusions and the state police colonel blusters his way through the most convenient suspect. That suspect is Andrew Grant and he and his niece are soon held. Nancy manages to get away through a window while her uncle is being interrogated. She steals a car and heads to the Westchester county home of Tecumseh Fox, the wealthy and somewhat eccentric private detective.
Fox is both smart and quick thinking. His main eccentricity is taking in people who are at the end of their rope, allowing them to stay at his estate for months at a time (or longer) in exchange for doing small jobs around the place. One of those people is Fox's assistant, Dan Pavey, to whom Fox has given the title vice president. Pavey is competent of sorts and compliant to Fox's orders. He also is totally stricken by Nancy Grant's beauty and fiery personality. Pavey is not the only one -- Thorpe's playboy son Jeffrey has also gone gaga over Nancy, so much so that he is willing to change his ways for her.
Fox manages to get Andrew Grant released and Grant and Nancy are invited to stay at the Thorpe's forty room estate. Also staying there in addition to Jeffrey Thorpe is Thorpe's divorced daughter, Miranda Pemberton, a cool customer who swims naked in the estate's pool. Among the other people who usually stay at the house are Luke Wheer, the missing valet, and Vaughn Kester, Ridley Thorp's private secretary, who also happens to be missing.
Fox soon manages to find both Wheer and Kester, as well as a very much alive Ridley Thorpe. But if Ridley Thorpe is alive, who was killed at the cabin? It turns out it was a look-alike that Thorpe had been hiring to spend weekends at the cabin with the valet Wheer, giving Thorpe the freedom to meet his mistress, actress Dorothy Duke, elsewhere privately. The question is, who was the intended target? Thorpe or his murdered double?
Fox arranges an alibi for Thorpe with Dorothy Duke's father, Henry Jordan, a retired sailor. Jordan agrees to this to save his daughter unwanted publicity. Jordan is also invited to the Thorpe estate. Everyone is at the estate, including the DA and the state and local police, when a shot is heard and Ridley Thorpe is found dead, a pistol, thrown by his side. Also at his side ws a blue scarf, owned by Nancy Grant. The pistol turns out to be Fox's, a weapon that he had left at his own house. Tests prove this pistol was the one that killed Thorpe. Locked inside Thorpe's safe is another pistol, the one that killed Thorpe's double.
Was Thorpe the intended victim all along? Lord knows that most of the people staying at the Thorpe estate had motive. Because of the remoteness of the estate and the presence of so many police officers, it appears that someone present was the murderer.
As a character, Tecumseh Fox reminds me of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, especially when he is using his legal knowledge to bamboozle the DA. He reacts quickly to every situation, turning things to his own advantage. He is also a little bit too quirky and decisive to be a true Perry Mason type, or even a Nero Wolfe. Much of the byplay between the characters seems a bit forced, most especially with the romantic triangle between Nancy Grant, Jeffrey Thorpe, and Dan Pavey. But in the end this is a satisfying and puzzling mystery, although not top-shelf Stout.
Tecumseh Fox appeared in two later novels, but was abandoned due to the popularity of the author's Nero Wolfe books.