#1056: A Wolf (or Two) in Sheep’s Clothing in The Affair of the Twisted Scarf, a.k.a. Disguise for Murder (1950) by Rex Stout

Once more unto the breach of Ellery Queen’s 1964 Anthology, with a visit to the famous brownstone on West 35th Street, home of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

There are over 1,000 posts on the blog now, and this is only the second time I’ve turned to Rex Stout, which is, if anything, more a comment on how fortunate we’ve been in recent years where the availability of classic novels of detection is concerned. I’ve read a smattering of Stout; certainly nowhere near enough to be considered well-rounded with regard to his oeuvre, but enough to know that he’s usually a fun time, and that the dynamic between the housebound orchid-grower and gourmand Wolfe and his wiseacre eyes and ears on the outside Goodwin is one of the chief appeals of Stout’s writing. And there’s plenty of Stout’s writing to indulge in, too, since alongside the 40-some Wolfe novels he also penned 40-some novellas and short stories featuring the characters…and all but one of the 20 EQMMs that I have contain a Stout story. Whew!

Like my previous dip into this collection, this story runs for about 15,000 words, though unlike that previous example I’d say this one feels a little too long; the setup is relatively simple and the actions which follow from it also far from complex…and yet for some reason things take a while, and you do really feel it. What’s here is essentially fun, and there’s a clever idea which arguably declares itself more openly from a clewing perspective than I’ve seen Stout do in the past, but this still strikes me as a 10,000 word story that was left to grow beyond its natural limits.

You won’t be laughing when…something something.

Exhausted from Wolfe’s hosting of the Manhattan Flower Club’s viewing of his own blooms, Archie Goodwin creeps away from the melee to seek some solace in Wolfe’s office. Here, he is approached by a woman who tells him that she is a confidence trickster currently involved in setting up a mark, and that she has sought him out because she is certain that one of the people upstairs is someone she saw entering a flat a few months ago before the occupant was later found murdered. More than that — such as who the suspected killer is — she will not divulge until Wolfe agrees to take the case. And so, of course, Archie is summoned away by a bellicose Wolfe and, of course, the woman is later found dead in Wolfe’s office, strangled as the previous victim had been.

The lovely thing about Stout’s writing is how easily and smoothly he changes gears, such as the way the slightly caddish banter goes out of Archie’s narration and conduct when he first encounters the dead body (hell, he even calls Wolfe “sir”…!). Equally, Wolfe, a man who deals with murder at arm’s length, is clearly disquieted by such sudden proximity to a corpse:

I went to the phone and started dialing Watkins 9-8241. Doc Vollmer came out of his corner. Wolfe was pathetic. He moved around behind his desk and lowered himself into his own oversized custom-made number; but there smack in front of him was the object on the floor, so after a moment he made a face, got back onto his feet, grunted like an outraged boar, went across to the other side of the room, to the shelves, and inspected the backbones of books.

With the entrance of Inspector Cramer, the milieu gets even more lightly enjoyable, giving Saul Panzer’s particular skill set a chance to fall under the policeman’s wrathful doubt when it’s revealed that some 200 people have passed through Wolfe’s house in the course of the event:

Cramer stared. “Are you telling me that you could fit that many names to that many faces after seeing them once?”

Saul’s shoulders went slightly up and down. “There’s more to people than faces. I might go wrong on a few, but not many.”

“Put it this way: Say I sit you here with that list, and a man or woman is brought in-“

“I could tell you positively whether the person had been here or not, especially if he was wearing the same clothes and hadn’t been disguised. On fitting him to his name I might go wrong in a few cases, but I doubt it.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Mr. Wolfe does,” Saul said complacently. “Archie does. I have developed my faculties.”

The rounds of interviews with the sightseers who have remained fill out, then, a moderate amount of time and add, if I may be so bold, very little to proceedings. There are some lovely turns of phrase, and at least one good Wolfe-ism to make you snort, but apart from Cramer’s truculent sealing of Wolfe’s office and Wolfe’s consequent wounded, sulky refusal to share with the detective what Archie is pretty sure he had picked up on by then — that clewing I talked about before coming in here, which I half expected to be something the reader hadn’t been told — it’s difficult to feel the urgency of any of this, except that you’ll realise later on it’s camouflage for a single point of reversal.

Sometimes I think you lot don’t pay attention.

When it comes, though, via a couple of hired goons who take time to lament Archie bringing along a gun to protect himself when confronting the killer, that reversal is very good, and Stout writes it well so that the revelation is dropped at exactly the right time to cause maximum impact on the reader.

I wouldn’t want to exaggerate how brave I am. It wasn’t that I was too fearless to be impressed by the fact that I was thoroughly tied up and the strangler was standing there smiling at me; I was simply astounded. It was an amazing disguise. The two main changes were the eyebrows and eyelashes; these eyes had bushy brows and long, thick lashes, whereas yesterday’s guest hadn’t had much of either one. The real change was from the inside. I had seen no smile on the face of yesterday’s guest, but if I had it wouldn’t have been like this one. The hair made a difference too, of course, parted on the side and slicked down.

He pulled the other straight chair around and sat. I admired the way he moved. That in itself could have been a dead giveaway, but the movements fitted the get-up to a T.

“So she told you about me?” he said.

It was the voice he had used on the phone. It was actually different, pitched lower, for one thing, but with it, as with the face and movements, the big change was from the inside. The voice was stretched tight, and the palms of his gloved hands were pressed against his kneecaps with the fingers straight out.

There’s some back-and-forth and a bit of a fight before things are tidied up, but by that point the effect has faded and Wolfe’s explanation, while clever, might arguably leave something of itself in the past, meaning that the modern reader will have to admit that certain…practices are now not so common and so the subtle point passed them by. Immerse yourself in the trapping of the time, however, and see if you can spot it…

And so, as a long-delayed return to Stout, this was quite a lot of fun, and has made me curious to investigate the other Stouts at my fingertips (see below). I appreciate that the characters might come through more strongly in a novel — though my memory is that they’re not hugely different in the longer works to how they’re presented here — but the plotting here is just casual enough to hide its key points and just pacey enough that you don’t start to feel the length until you’re in the final quarter or so. Essentially, however, I finished this eager to see what else I might have been missing from Stout, and that’s about the best one can hope for. Expect more Wolfe in due course, then.

Oh, and both titles are terrible, by the way. Best not to dwell on either of them.


See also

Bob Schneider @ Speedy Mystery: Stout plays fair with the clues, in fact, the key clue is ingeniously planted in plain sight, however modern readers might miss it if they forget that the story takes place in 1950. This is a gripping and intense story with only small bits of humor to break the tension. Had Stout eliminated a long melodramatic action sequence, cut down on some lengthy interviews and clarified some of the characters behaviors then “Disguise for Murder” would have been a near perfect short story and a favorite of anthologists.

Bob has also written a ranking of Stout’s Wolfe short fiction, which I’ll be using to inform any future choices from this quarter. Thanks, Bob!

13 thoughts on “#1056: A Wolf (or Two) in Sheep’s Clothing in The Affair of the Twisted Scarf, a.k.a. Disguise for Murder (1950) by Rex Stout

  1. Lovely to see Stout here again. I have only ever known this one as Disguise for Murder from its book publication, Curtains for Three (1951) – this was my first Stout book (a collection of three novellas) and still one of my favourites of his many collections. Was also adapted for the excellent TV series starring Tim Hutton and Maury Chaykin.


  2. I’m on a Wolfe kick at the moment having bought the DVD of the series mentioned above and wanting to read those stories before watching them so I’ll arrive at this one in due course.


    • I had the advantage of being able to look at this on its own, though, where you had to consider it as one among many. That would doubtless make its flaws feel more apparent.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hmm that is very true and I find it harder to get into short stories at the best of times, let alone when I have a whole collection to read. I think if I could only read novels or only read short stories for the rest of my life, I would definitely pick the former.


  3. I have this story in Curtains for Three, which is a good one. Actually all the collections of novellas are good, and pretty much all the books too if I’m being honest.
    I find Stout so refreshing, a real tonic whenever I’m feeling a bit down. Perhaps the plotting isn’t always all that, but the writing and world building is just so smooth and attractive.
    One thing about the Wolfe stories though – While I don’t think there’s much to be gained from reading in order, I noticed the first few don’t quite get the tone right. Or at least there’s some inconsistency with regard to what comes later. In particular, Archie’s speech pattern is slightly off and he uses words or exclamations that sound odd to me. And I also think Cramer actually lights and smokes a cigar in one or two of the early books!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean Colin. Fer-de-lance is a decent debut, and League of Frightened is even better as a follow-up but I think they really hit their stride a bit later – and the slightly more “relaxed” books from the 50s and 60s are maybe less memorable in terms of plot but incredibly entertaining. I read the novella collections before the novels and I think they’re the best way in to the world of Wolfe and Archie.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I’d suggest anyone looking to try out Wolfe for size go for some of the novella collections too. I can’t say for sure which I read first but I think it was And Four to Go – the Christmas story that opens it is a cracker! I know, an unforgivable pun, but I couldn’t help myself. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • I imagine that the use these EQMMs will be put to first is in exploring the higher-rated Wolfe novellas first. And then maybe I’ll go back and try some novels, so any recommendations on that front will be appreciated.


  4. Well, I don’t mean to disagree with everyone here . . . and so I won’t. My first foray into the Wolfe-verse was “Black Orchid,” and it was fabulous. I totally agree with Colin that I don’t read Stout for the puzzles but for the writing and, of course, for Archie and Wolfe at home. Their meal scenes make me hungry! A couple of years back, a friend, who was a devout, Rex Stout fan, gave me his entire collection of Nero Wolfe books, because he figured he wouldn’t read them again, and I was the only one of his friends would appreciate them. Since then, I really haven’t taken any sort of a dive into them, but I must one of these days. I think that I will take Sergio’s advice here, and rather than try to be a completist pick some of the best books and read them. I really don’t remember what I have read and what I haven’t, except that I did read League of Frightened Men (one of the more enlightened dealings of race for its time) and the Zeck trilogy. I would love to take suggestions from people here . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ooh, been planning to check out some of the novellas so that ranking site will be handy… I’ve not read much Rex Stout but definitely found what I have read enjoyable/interesting so far.


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