Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Not a Blah": Plot It Yourself (1959), by Rex Stout

"There is something about the idea of a very successful author stealing his material from an unsuccessful author that seems to appeal to ordinary people, and juries are made up of ordinary people."

                                --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
In PIY Wolfe reviews at length how the phrase "not for nothing" is used repeatedly in the supposedly plagiarized manuscripts, leading Archie to quip, "Not for nothing did you read the stories."  This is main reason why, in the eyes of most fans, the Wolfe canon has endured: Archie and Nero and their wonderful, witty banter. 

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.


  1. Hello, Curt. I don't have a clear theory about who might have finished the Haynes book, but Jessie Rickard was one name that occurred to me idly. I thought she was more likely to be in the same social circle.

    1. Hi, Martin, thanks for stopping by and commenting. As you commented to Sergio on your blog, maybe someday there will be some definitive proof! Until then I'm sticking with the flotsam and jetsam theory. I got a kick out of seeing Wolfe go over the manuscripts looking for duplicated phrases, contending that all authors have them and unknowingly reveal themselves that way. It's the same thing I had in mind with Gilbert.

  2. Absolutely,and it's a good method. The only comment I'd make - and I'm not sure if it was the same in the US - is that flotsam and jetsam was an extremely common phrase at that time, and indeed one my mother used constantly. It still is fairly common in the UK, perhaps more so among older people.

  3. I can't do more than to quote from myself:

    "Additionally, the phrase "flotsam and jetsam," used to refer to a bedraggled piece of humanity, pops up in the later portion of The Crystal Beads Murder; and this is a term and image that appears recurrently in Gilbert's own work. Compare the use of the term in The Crystal Beads Murder with its use in Gilbert's The Long Shadow (1932), for example, and you should see what I mean:

    She was a kind-hearted woman and the slowly moving figure [note: a passing tramp!] appealed so eloquently as a bit of human flotsam and jetsam, drifting through the murk of an autumn morning, that she impulsively threw the window open and called to him as he passed.

    --The Crystal Beads Murder

    Nobody knew who the old woman was; nobody ever asked. Nobody cared. She was part of the flotsam and jetsam flung up by life to end its days in Sullivan's Dwellings.

    --The Long Shadow

    In both cases it is not merely the use of the phrase, but the sentiment behind it, the empathy for the downtrodden, that is notably similar. This strong concern with the plight of society's unwanted is highly characteristic of Anthony Gilbert's work (including her revealing memoir, Three-a-Penny) and, I think it's fair to say, rather less characteristic of Golden Age mystery in general."

    It's such a recurrent phrase with her, like "the rising generation" with Eden Phillpotts. Sometimes, when one reads a lot of an author, one catches these things. Gilbert loved to use that phrase in her books, and in that particular way. Speaking of mother's, my mother noticed this when she was reading Gilbert, Independently from me.

    It leads to an interesting subject: catch phrases of mystery writers. maybe you have some yourself, Martin!

  4. PLOT IT YOURSELF is one of my favorite Wolfe books - I've read it several times. The plagiarism aspect is fascinating - I wonder if anyone has ever tried this particular ploy. Everytime I read it I think - hmmmm, this might work. Ha.

  5. Stout's interest in plagiarism may stem from his time as president of the Author's League, now the Author's Guild. According to its website, "The Guild advocates for authors on issues of copyright, fair contracts, free speech and tax fairness, and has initiated lawsuits in defense of authors’ rights, where necessary."

    1. Yeah, that make sense to me! His depiction of NAAD suggests a little skepticism too.

  6. I'll have to check my Wolfe books read list, but from your description I don't think I've read this one, and I've read most of them. I'll be checking later today.

  7. Irresistible title and plot for a writer. Especially knowing it's Stout. Fascinating review.

    1. Glad you enjoyed. I always enjoy Stout and this one definitely has some extras.