Prisoner’s Base (1953) aka Out Goes She by Rex Stout

Archie Goodwin, assistant to the great detective Nero Wolfe, decided there was nothing wrong with agreeing to allow a mysterious beautiful young woman stay for a week in Wolfe’s townhouse, but Wolfe had other ideas, especially when he was asked, for a strangely high fee, to track down that very girl by her legal guardian. As such, Priscilla Eads is sent out into the New York night…

Needless to say, Priscilla and her maid are soon found dead, strangled. It transpires that the fate of an awful lot of money was dependent on Priscilla reaching her twenty-fifth birthday, something she has now failed to do. And unfortunately for Archie, his fingerprints are all over Priscilla’s belongings… so Wolfe takes the unprecedented step of taking Archie as his client in a bid to find the murderer.

I can’t remember why Stout never turned up when I was looking at authors who I hadn’t reviewed for the run-up to my 1000th blog review a while back. My experiences to date are the first third or so of Fer-de-Lance, which I found dull, and the continuation/prequel Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by Robert Goldsborough, which must win the prize for least imaginative title I’ve ever seen, and I’ve read books by John Rhode! Oh, and I didn’t like that book either.

Now my once-upon-a-time blogging buddy Sergio had noticed this and, as a thank you for signing some copies of The Mystery Of The Peacock’s Eye (yes, I can be bought), he sent me this, what he thought was the best introduction to Nero and Archie. Did he plan work? Am I now a devotee of Rex Stout?

Well, sort of. I mean the plan sort of worked, I did enjoy the book. It has an introduction by William DeAndrea, which also describes this as being the best introduction to Stout’s work, and also that it contains “a dazzling simple – and simply dazzling – plot gimmick”. I presume that they’re referring to the motive, which I admit, is clever. Dazzling is probably over-stating it, but it is clever.

All in all, the book is entertaining. Wolfe does come across as being something of an arse, but it does demonstrate the relationship between him and his employee well, both personally and professionally. Most of his detection does seem to be asking people to confess and when that (obviously) doesn’t work, when he gives his big reveal, it is revealed to be conjecture that he confirmed off the page. So the reader is making an educated guess, I suppose, rather than actually solving the crime from the clues. But the motive does make it a satisfying conclusion.

So all in all, I enjoyed the book. I’m not convinced that I’ll be racing out to read another one though, not soon at any rate. It’s more that I’m not desperately enamoured with the P.I. mentality of US crime fiction, where solving a murder for the moral reason (while that is sort of the case in this one) isn’t necessarily enough for our hero to engage themselves. It’s similar to Gardner’s Perry Mason books – I enjoyed the one I read, but am in no great rush to read a lot of them.

At some point, I’ll be back – any recommendations for which book I should return to are gratefully received – and many thanks to Sergio for adding an author to my reading canon who I should have looked at a long time ago…

NB Anyone have any idea what the title means? Apparently it’s from the children’s game of the same name, but what that has to do with the book escapes me…

14 comments

  1. “The 1992 Bantam edition reprints the typewritten title page of Rex Stout’s 1952 manuscript, showing that the book’s original title was Dare-Base. Dare-Base is a children’s game, a variation on tag, also called prisoner’s base.

    “The title on my manuscript was Dare-Base, from a game we played in Kansas when I was a boy,” Rex Stout told biographer John McAleer. “My publisher, Harold Guinzburg, said it was better known as prisoner’s base.”[1]

    Late one night, Archie muses that the situation faced by one of the characters is like the game — it’s up to her to get from one base to another without being tagged. But she does get tagged.”

    Wikipedia

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  2. You weren’t the only one who didn’t care for the title. I’ve read that it was originally released in the UK as “Out Goes She”. Prisoners Base sounds much better to me and I’ve never even heard of the game.
    This novel was unique in that Goodwin has a personal stake in the murders so he’s not his usual smart ass self in either his narration or his interactions with the other characters.
    My recommendations are “The Silent Speaker”, “Some Buried Caesar” or “Too Many Cooks”. All very entertaining.

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    • I MUCH prefer the title “Prisoner’s Base versus Out Goes She. Hmm . . . wonder what other titles you’d give that comes to mind?

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  3. I’ve had a repeated experience with the Wolfe novels: After years away from them, I’ll read one, find it thoroughly pleasurable (not the mystery, just the characters and atmosphere and style). Then I’ll think “I should read another one of these right away,” and find that the experience is pretty much identical. One, then a multi-year break, delights me enough (to quote Jane Austen’s Mr Bennet). Chesterton’s Father Brown is like that for me too.

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    • Many fans of the Nero Wolfe series love the characters, the atmosphere of the Brownstone, and the camaraderie between the main players. But I think “Prisoner’s Base” has a pretty solid mystery, something that’s often not the case with the books, and there is a great emotional investment that Archie Goodwin feels towards the murder victims, again such a rarity from him.

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  4. In chapter 13:
    “. . . I had told Wolfe, when he gave Priscilla Eads eleven hours to hide, that it was like run sheep run, but this was more like prisoner’s base. The ‘phone in the living-room was one base and the elevator outside was the other, and it was up to Sarah Jaffee to make the run without being tagged. It had been a lot of yours since I had played prisoner’s base.”

    Can’t tell you what it means, though!

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  5. I find Stout extremely underwhelming. He couldn’t tell a story, and he couldn’t plot a mystery.

    I’ve read at least two dozen of his books; the better ones are Too Many Cooks and Some Buried Caesar (both of which take Wolfe out of his habitat), and The Hand in the Glove (not a Wolfe). Some of the novellas aren’t bad.

    Stout fans, I understand, read him for the pleasure of revisiting familiar characters and the Wolfe / Archie relationship; I don’t particularly like either character. Wolfe is a grotesque, unprepossessing, and rather fake assemblage of eccentricities; Archie is obnoxious.
    (And why “Nero”? “Vitellius” would be more apt.)

    The Wolfe books are formula fiction – unimaginative and hollow. There is little atmosphere or sense of place other than the brownstone; and the non-regular characters are ciphers (generally faceless businessmen). There’s seldom enough mystery or plot to fill a novel; the books spin their wheels until Archie needles Wolfe into action, whereupon he interviews the suspects en masse, moves his lips in and out, twiddles his fingers, drinks beer, and pulls a rabbit out of his hat. The solutions are feeble – often arbitrary – and the clues are either thin or not shared with the reader. Reading The Silent Speaker or Too Many Women (to name but two) was frankly depressing.

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  6. I strongly recommend early Stout but NOT Fer de Lance, the first.
    Personally I like The League of Freightened Men and the Red Box the best, but anything up to about 1942 is much of a muchness. They get hit and miss after that.

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    • I’ve attempted Fer-de-Lance numerous times and the book starts out great but whenever I reach the middle of the story I feel like I’m in quicksand — it’s hard to get through. Maybe someday I’ll go through ALL of Fer-de-Lance, from beginning to the END!

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