The League of Frightened Men

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The League of
Frightened Men
Author Rex Stout
Cover artist Winifred E. Lefferts
Country United States
Language English
Series Nero Wolfe
Genre Detective fiction
Publisher Farrar & Rinehart
Publication date
August 14, 1935
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 308 pp. (first edition)
OCLC 4713048
Preceded by Fer-de-Lance
Followed by The Rubber Band

The League of Frightened Men is the second Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout. The story was serialized in six issues of The Saturday Evening Post (June 15–July 20, 1935) under the title The Frightened Men. The novel was published in 1935 by Farrar & Rinehart, Inc. The League of Frightened Men is a Haycraft Queen Cornerstone, one of the most influential works of mystery fiction listed by crime fiction historian Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen.[1]

Plot introduction[edit]

When two men die under mysterious circumstances and a third disappears after appealing to Wolfe for protection, suspicion falls on Paul Chapin, a controversial author and friend of the three men who was severely injured many years ago at their hands as a result of a hazing prank. The remainder of the men involved, united together as a "League of Atonement", are in fear for their lives against Chapin's vengeance, but when a third man dies Wolfe determines that he may not be the only threat they face.

Plot summary[edit]

After reading a controversial new novel by an author called Paul Chapin, Wolfe reveals to Archie that Andrew Hibbard, a psychologist, had approached him while Archie was away on another case. Hibbard had asked Wolfe to protect him from a man whose name he would not disclose, but who had apparently sent Hibbard and his friends threatening poems implying he was responsible for the deaths of two of their mutual friends. After reading a phrase in Chapin's book that also appeared in the poems, Wolfe has deduced that the man Hibbard feared was none other than Paul Chapin. Having rejected Hibbard’s appeal at the time, now that Wolfe knows the identity of Hibbard's nemesis he believes there may be some profit in Hibbard's case.

Soon after, Wolfe and Archie learn that Hibbard has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Hibbard was one of a group of men who, in their college days, played a prank on Chapin that left him permanently crippled. Although Hibbard and the others have shown remorse and pity towards Chapin ever since, Hibbard's niece Evelyn and the police suspect that Chapin has murdered Hibbard and the other two dead men to take revenge on them, and intends to do the same to the other members of the “League of Atonement”. Wolfe acquires a list of the other men in the League and summons them to his office and offers a proposal: in exchange each man paying a portion of his fee that is within their current means, he will determine the truth behind the deaths of their mutual friends and remove the threat that they believe Chapin poses.

At this point, Chapin himself interrupts the meeting. He claims to Wolfe and his friends that he is not responsible for Hibbard's disappearance, the deaths of their friends or the threats they have received, but refuses to participate when Wolfe challenges him to type out one of the threatening letters. After he leaves, the members of the League agree to Wolfe's terms. It is revealed that Chapin is married to Dora Ritter, who was once employed by Dr. Loring Burton, a fellow member of the League who has known Chapin since childhood and ended up marrying the woman Chapin loved as a younger man.

After arranging for Chapin to be tailed as closely as possible and a search for Hibbard to be conducted, Wolfe orders Archie to investigate the deaths of the other two men. The first, Judge Harrison, was found dead at the bottom of a cliff after attending a class reunion nearby, apparently the victim of a tragic accident. However, Chapin had also attended the party, leading Archie to suspect that he took an impromptu opportunity to push the judge over the cliff. The second, Eugene Dreyer, was the victim of an apparent suicide having sold one of the League a painting that turned out to be a forgery. However, Chapin and another mutual friend, Dr. Leopold Elkus, were also involved in the matter. Elkus is sympathetic to Chapin, and Archie suspects that he is allied to Chapin and helping him commit the murders.

After following a lead provided by one of the members of the League, Archie discovers the typewriter that Chapin used to write the threatening notes and retrieves it. Checking in on the surveillance of Chapin, Archie notices an operative with gold teeth wearing a pink tie who doesn't seem to be affiliated with either the police or Wolfe's operatives. Wolfe orders Archie to bring this man to his office, whereupon he is revealed to be Andrew Hibbard, having faked his disappearance due to his fear and paranoia of Chapin and following Chapin to work up the nerve to preemptively murder him.

Both Wolfe and Archie are shocked to receive a phone call informing them that Paul Chapin has apparently shot and killed Dr. Burton. Hurrying to the scene of the crime, Archie is too late to prevent Chapin being taken into custody for murder. As Wolfe takes the drastic step of leaving his home to visit Chapin in custody, Archie manages to win the trust of Burton’s wife, and learns that Dora Chapin had paid a visit to Burton home earlier that day. Believing Dora Chapin to be the murderer, Archie attempts to confront her at the Chapin’s home, but is drugged and incapacitated. Upon regaining consciousness, he telephones Wolfe only to learn that he has left the brownstone to search for Archie. Wolfe calls the Chapin’s telephone, confirming Archie’s fears that he has been taken by Dora Chapin. Fearing for Wolfe’s life, Archie rushes to the rendezvous point Wolfe provides him with but discovers that Wolfe is safe and unharmed, having convinced Dora Chapin that he poses no threat to her husband.

Wolfe summons the members of the League to his office. He produces Hibbard to his friends, and then reveals a confession he has apparently received from Paul Chapin—which confirms, as Wolfe suspected all along, that Chapin had no involvement in the deaths of their two mutual friends at all. The deaths were an unfortunate accident and a suicide respectively, but Chapin, psychologically incapable of murder but resentful of both their responsibility for his injury and their pity towards him, merely sent the poems to scare his friends and gain his vengeance on them that way. Incredulous and skeptical of Wolfe’s claims in the light of the death of Burton, the League vote on whether to pay Wolfe. When the vote indicates that Wolfe will not receive his fee, Wolfe presses one member – Ferdinand Bowen, a stockbroker – to change his vote to a yes. When Bowen refuses, Wolfe reveals that Bowen is in fact Burton’s murderer. Burton had discovered that Bowen had been embezzling from him and other members of the League whose investments he managed, and Bowen used the fear and paranoia that everyone had of Chapin to stage Burton’s murder and throw suspicion on Chapin.

The next day, Archie realizes that Wolfe faked Chapin’s ‘confession’, and in fact never left the brownstone at all. Chapin visits Wolfe at his office. His vengeance thwarted, Chapin reveals that he is planning to include a character based on Wolfe in his latest novel – and that character will meet a most unfortunate end.

The unfamiliar word[edit]

"Nero Wolfe talks in a way that no human being on the face of the earth has ever spoken, with the possible exception of Rex Stout after he had a gin and tonic," said Michael Jaffe, executive producer of the A&E TV series, A Nero Wolfe Mystery.[2]

"Readers of the Wolfe saga often have to turn to the dictionary because of the erudite vocabulary of Wolfe and sometimes of Archie," wrote Rev. Frederick G. Gotwald.[3]

Examples of unfamiliar words — or unfamiliar uses of words that some would otherwise consider familiar — are found throughout the corpus, often in the give-and-take between Wolfe and Archie.

  • Viva voce, chapter 2. Wolfe refers Archie to a conversation in the office that was transcribed by a stenographer hired while Archie was away:
I nodded, glancing over the typewritten pages. "Andrew Hibbard. Instructor in psychology at Columbia. It was on October twentieth, a Saturday, that’s two weeks ago today."
"Suppose you read it."
"Viva voce?"
"Archie." Wolfe looked at me. "Where did you pick that up, where did you learn to pronounce it, and what do you think it means?"
"Do you want me to read this stuff out loud, sir?"
"It doesn't mean out loud. Confound you." Wolfe emptied his glass, leaned back in his chair, got his fingers to meet in front of his belly, and laced them. "Proceed."
  • Juridical, chapter 21. Wolfe urges objectivity from the assembled League members:
"You cannot be at the same time juridical and partisan, at least not with any pretense at competence."

Reviews and commentary[edit]

Cultural references[edit]

"A number of the paintings of René Magritte (1898–1967), the internationally famous Belgian painter, are named after titles of books by Rex Stout," wrote the artist's attorney and friend Harry Torczyner.[6][7] "He read Hegel, Heidegger and Sartre, as well as Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout and Georges Simenon," the Times Higher Education Supplement wrote of Magritte. "Some of his best titles were 'found' in this way."[8] Magritte's 1942 painting, Les compagnons de la peur ("The Companions of Fear"), bears the title given to The League of Frightened Men when it was published in France by Gallimard (1939). It is one of Magritte's series of "leaf-bird" paintings. Created during the Nazi occupation of Brussels, it depicts a stormy, mountainous landscape in which a cluster of plants has metamorphosed into a group of vigilant owls.[9]


The League of Frightened Men[edit]

Columbia Pictures adapted the novel for its 1937 film The League of Frightened Men. Lionel Stander reprised his Meet Nero Wolfe role as Archie Goodwin, and Walter Connolly starred as Nero Wolfe.

Publication history[edit]

Rico Tomaso illustrated the six-part serialized printing of The Frightened Men for The Saturday Evening Post (June 15–July 20, 1935)
In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of The League of Frightened Men: "Black cloth, gold lettering on front cover and spine; rear cover blank. Issued in a mainly black, white and gray pictorial dust wrapper … The first edition has the publisher's monogram logo on the copyright page. The second printing, in September 1935, is identical to the first except that the logo was dropped."[11]
In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of The League of Frightened Men had a value of "$15,000 and up."[12]
  • 1935, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1935, hardcover
  • 1935, London: Cassell, 1935, hardcover
  • 1937, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1937, hardcover
  • 1940, New York: Triangle, January 1940, hardcover
  • 1942, New York: Avon, 1942, paperback
  • 1944, Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Company, The Nero Wolfe Omnibus (with The Red Box), January 1944, hardcover
  • New York: Lawrence E. Spivak, Jonathan Press Mystery #J-33, not dated, abridged, paperback
  • New York: Lawrence E. Spivak, Mercury Mystery #48, not dated, abridged, paperback
  • 1955, New York: Viking Press, Full House: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus (with And Be a Villain and Curtains for Three), May 15, 1955, hardcover
  • 1961, London: Penguin, 1961, paperback
  • 1963, New York: Pyramid (Green Door), October 1963, paperback
  • 1979, New York: Jove, June 1979, paperback
  • 1992, New York: Bantam Crimeline ISBN 0-553-25933-4 February 1992, paperback, Rex Stout Library edition with introduction by Robert Goldsborough
  • 1996, Burlington, Ontario: Durkin Hayes Publishing, DH Audio ISBN 0-88646-418-8 September 1996, audio cassette (read by Saul Rubinek)
  • 2004, Auburn, California: The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., Mystery Masters ISBN 1-57270-404-7 July 2004, audio CD (unabridged, read by Michael Prichard)
  • 2008, New York: Bantam Dell Publishing Group (with Fer-de-Lance) ISBN 0-553-38545-3 June 2008, paperback
  • 2010, New York: Bantam ISBN 978-0-307-75602-2 April 28, 2010, e-book


  1. ^ Haycraft Queen Cornerstones Complete Checklist at Classic Crime; retrieved July 1, 2011
  2. ^ Quoted in Vitaris, Paula, "Miracle on 35th Street: Nero Wolfe on Television," Scarlet Street, issue #45, 2002, p. 36
  3. ^ Gotwald, Rev. Frederick G., The Nero Wolfe Handbook (1985; revised 1992, 2000), page 234
  4. ^ Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8
  5. ^ The New Yorker, August 17, 1935, p. 60
  6. ^ McAleer, John, Rex Stout: A Biography, p. 578. McAleer quotes a letter dated May 24, 1974, that he received from Torczyner, a New York collector who was also Georges Simenon's attorney.
  7. ^ "We know the importance granted to the words by Magritte in his paintings and we know the impact that literary works such as Poe's, Rex Stout's or Mallarmé's had on him." The Brussels Surrealist Group, Magritte Museum (retrieved July 31, 2011).
  8. ^ Danchev, Alex, "Canny Resemblance"; Times Higher Education Supplement, June 30, 2011
  9. ^ Matteson Art – 1931–1942 Brussels & Pre-War Years; retrieved July 31, 2011
  10. ^ Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), pp. 9–10. John McAleer, Judson Sapp and Arriean Schemer are associate editors of this definitive publication history.
  11. ^ Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I (2001, New York: The Mysterious Bookshop, limited edition of 250 copies), p. 10
  12. ^ Smiley, Robin H., "Rex Stout: A Checklist of Primary First Editions." Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine (Volume 16, Number 4), April 2006, p. 32

External links[edit]