Nero Wolfe #3: The Rubber Band (Pyramid Books, 1964)

The Rubber Band

The Rubber Band is a pretty little mystery that began in the Wild West some 40 years earlier. A desperate situation that would end in a hanging; a promise of wealth if a rescue was forthcoming; decades later, the surviving rescuers and some of their children try to collect on this debt from one of the richest of England’s gentry. Early on and far too briefly, we meet Harlan Scovil, and old prospector-turner-rancher, a character I’d have loved to have known more. We also get to see one of Wolfe’s sporadic (and always futile) attempts to – lose weight? Exercise? He takes up the game of darts, which he calls “javelins,” beating Archie soundly and repeatedly.

This is the first time we experience Wolfe in close proximity to a female over an extended period. For her protection, Wolfe hides Clara Fox, one of the grown children, in the brownstone over the course of several days. We even get to experience one of the cleverest sleight-of-hands Wolfe pulls on Lt. Rowcliffe (couldn’t happen to a nicer guy!), who has come, armed with search warrant, to ransack the house. (He doesn’t find her, of course.) Needless to say, Clara Fox’ tenure in the brownstone provides Archie with some prime material: “’That Harlan Scovil that got killed was a good guy. You’d have liked him; he said no one could ever get to know a woman well enough to leave her around loose. Though I suppose you’ve changed your mind, now that there’s a woman sleeping in your bed—‘ ‘Nonsense. My bed—‘ ‘You own all the beds in the house except mine, don’t you? Certainly it’s your bed.’” Time to change the subject; although, later in the book, Archie does pronounce Ms. Fox not “…a woman, she was an epidemic.” For her part, Clara Fox has some pertinent remarks about the house on W. 35th: “’You know, Mr. Goodwin, this house represents the most insolent denial of female rights the mind of man has ever conceived. No woman in it from top to bottom, but the routine if faultless, the food is perfect, and the sweeping and dusting are impeccable. I have never been a housewife, but I can’t overlook this challenge. I’m going to marry Mr. Wolfe, and I know a girl that will be just the thing for you, and of course our friends will be in and out a good deal. This place needs some upsetting.’”

Some characters show up, evidently regulars in their dealings with Wolfe, but what happens to Johnny Keems and to Henry H. Barber, the lawyer, later replaced by Mr. Parker? It’s been decades since I undertook reading the Canon, so perhaps I’ve just forgotten any particulars divulged of their departures.

We can always count on Archie’s presence and cracking wise to carry us through. Wolfe asks him, at one point, “’…When have my expectations of you ventured beyond your capacity?’ ‘Never. How could they?’” Later, Archie comments on the idea that we never expect people in high places to commit crimes: “As a matter of fact, I suspect that noblemen and people who eat lunch at the White House commit more than their share of murders compared to their numerical strength in the total population.” And, we’re treated to this pointed turn of phrase about District Attorney Skinner, who was “’…already sunk in his chair as if he had been there all evening, [and] had the wearied cynical expression of a man who had some drinks three hours ago and none since.’” It’s Cramer, however, who provides the most succinct summation of Wolfe’s character, after the official group’s failure to drag any helpful facts out of him: “’He’s always like this. You might as well stick pins in a rhinoceros.”

Wolfe makes a statement, during this visit from the police and county officials, which pinpoints the one and only quibble I have with the beloved A&E Nero Wolfe series. Wolfe, speaking to Police Commissioner Hombert (who doesn’t know Wolfe at all): “He wiggled a finger. ‘I don’t shout, but I never say anything I don’t mean.’” I love Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe—he’s simply splendid. And it isn’t the actor’s culpability as much as the director’s—but the A&E Nero Wolfe, he shouts too much and too easily loosed his temper. The Nero Wolfe of the books does not. Of course I’m only 3 into the series, so maybe the “I never shout” remark is misguided self-analysis on Wolfe’s part.

In the concluding chapter, the mystery having been resolved to Wolfe’s satisfaction (as usual) l, we return to the dartboard. Wolfe’s arm had been grazed by a bullet during the dénouement, and Archie gets in one final dig. “Wolfe emptied his glass of beer, arose from his chair, and began fingering the darts, sorting out the yellow ones. He looked at me.  ‘I suppose this is foolhardy,’ he murmured, ‘with this bullet-wound, to start my blood pumping. ‘ ‘Sure,’ I agreed. ‘You ought to be in bed. They may have to amputate.’”

[The image for this1964 Pyramid Books edition of The Rubber Band is courtesy The Wolfe Pack, a most highly recommended organization devoted to all things Wolfean and Stoutean! thewolfepack.org

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