--Thomas Dexter, publishing executive, Plot It Yourself (1959)
"....I can't dismiss the possibility that one or more of the supposed victims is a thief and a liar. 'Most writers steal a good thing when they can' is doubtless an--"
"Blah!" Mortimer Oshin exploded.
Wolfe's brows went up. "That was in quotation marks, Mr. Oshin. It was said, or written, more than a century ago by Barry Cornwall, the English poet and dramatist. He wrote Mirandola, a tragedy performed at Covent Garden with Macready and Kemble. It is doubtless an exaggeration, but it is not a blah. If there had been then in England a National Association of Authors and Dramatists, Barry Cornwall would have been a member."
--Plot It Yourself (1959)
In Plot It Yourself The National Association of Authors and Dramatists, or NAAD, is in a pickle, and has come to Nero Wolfe, Great Detective, to get them out of it. Several of their more successful members have been hit with plagiarism allegations and are being sued for heavy damages by their accusers. NAAD, and the accused individual members, insist the claims are fraudulent, but there is, or seems to be, considerable damning evidence against them, in the form of similar manuscripts that were written by the accusers and submitted to the publishers of the later, successful, works. Did the authors and publishers shelve and then steal this intellectual property, or are they the victims of a clever criminal enterprise?
The more I read of Rex Stout, the more I'm convinced that of all the writers working within the mystery genre it was he who was the greatest chronicler of elite corporate culture in mid-century America--what we might call "Mad Men culture," though I think Stout can be said to have written, with a few exceptions, his best books before the 60s (at least, surely, before Woodstock). Perhaps this is why academics and literary critics have tended not to be that interested in him, in contrast with enduring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin fans. He doesn't write so much of dark mean streets, but of scheming corporate cheats. And I find it fascinating.
As social history and simply as pure entertainment, I don't rank Plot it Yourself as highly as I do And Be a Villain (1948), Stout's delightful and hilarious take on commercial radio and corporate sponsors, but it's still a satisfyingly solid and engrossing entry into the Wolfe canon. The first half of the novel moves a bit slowly, but in the second half the bodies begin really to pile up, as a ruthless killer seeks to block every one of Nero Wolfe's gambits by mercilessly sacrificing human pawns on the crime chessboard. It's a bit like Game of Thrones even!
Rex Stout named one of his Wolfe novels Gambit and they really do feel like chess games, as Wolfe from his brownstone fastness shrewdly maneuvers to collar a killer and collect his fee. I've read commentators dismiss Stout as a plotter, but PIY has a good plot, and it's a fair play plot.
Late in the novel Wolfe's legman, Archie, even essentially offers us what is in effect an Ellery Queenian "challenge to the reader," where he tells us that he, Archie, should have seen the solution as his employer has, because the main clue was presented to him, and he assumes the reader has had the sense to see it. (I hadn't!) This is the definition of fair play. Frugally clued fair play, to be sure, but still fair play.
Plagiarism--the use of another's words, ideas and work without attribution--is an interesting subject to me, as I have mentioned previously, and Stout treats it much more authoritatively than Josephine Bell would two decades later. (Had someone ever tried to accuse him of it? He was certainly a successful author!)
I enjoyed seeing Wolfe spotting similarities in author's texts by checking for duplicated usages of phrases and other matters of style. This was what convinced me a few years ago that Anthony Gilbert was the woman who completed Annie Haynes' The Crystal Beads Murder (1930). I believe this still, even though I have been challenged by the eminent modern crime fiction writer and critic Martin Edwards. Gilbert really liked the phrase "flotsam and jetsam," I'm just telling you! I believe Nero Wolfe would agree, and, as Archie says, he's a genius.
|see Keble College, Oxford|
Without that (and Archie's narration) PIY would be a solid enough plotted example of a mid-century American mystery, but it wouldn't be nearly as memorable as a novel, even with the asides about plagiarism. With Archie and Nero it is memorable indeed.
There's also a splendid burn Wolfe blasts Inspector Cramer with, but I'll leave you to spot it yourself, if you will (if you haven't read the book already). As much as I dislike Wolfe's self-centered eccentricities sometimes, the perpetually blustering, stogie-chomping Inspector Cramer is vastly more objectionable and I always enjoy seeing Wolfe (and Archie, though his victim seems more often to be Sergeant Purley) score off him.
Coming soon on the subject of plagiarism, possibly the most egregious example of it in the history of mystery publishing. And it happened at the height of the Golden Age of detective fiction! Stay tuned, I shall blog it myself.