The Red Box

The Red Box
Author Rex Stout
Cover artist Winifred E. Lefferts
Country United States
Language English
Series Nero Wolfe
Genre Detective fiction
Publisher Farrar & Rinehart
Publication date
April 15, 1937
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 298 pp. (first edition)
OCLC 1830354
Preceded by The Rubber Band
Followed by Too Many Cooks

The Red Box is the fourth Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout. Prior to its first publication in 1937 by Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., the novel was serialized in five issues of The American Magazine (December 1936 – April 1937). Adapted twice for Italian television, The Red Box is the first Nero Wolfe story to be adapted for the American stage.

Plot introduction

I never knew a plaguier case. We have all the knowledge we need, and not a shred of presentable evidence. Unless the red box is found—are we actually going to be forced to send Saul to Scotland or Spain or both? Good heavens! Are we so inept that we must half encircle the globe to demonstrate the motive and the technique of a murder that happened in our own office in front of our eyes? Pfui!
Nero Wolfe in The Red Box, chapter 14

Wolfe and Archie investigate the death of a model who ate a piece of poisoned candy. One of the suspects begs Wolfe to handle his estate and especially the contents of a certain red box. Wolfe is at first concerned about a possible conflict of interest, but feels unable to refuse when the man dies in his office before telling Wolfe where to find the red box. The police naturally think that he told Wolfe somewhat more before dying.

This novel presents the series' first instance of a murder taking place in Wolfe's office.

Plot summary

James Schucker illustrated The Red Box for its appearance in five issues of The American Magazine, beginning in December 1936.

The novel opens with Nero Wolfe confronted by a client, Llewellyn Frost, who is pressuring him to leave the his home to investigate a crime scene. Frost has hired Wolfe to investigate the death of Molly Lauck, a model who died after eating a poisoned Jordan almond from a box of assorted candies. Frost wants to ensure that his ortho-cousin Helen is freed from the employment of Boyden McNair, the owner of the fashion boutique where Lauck died. Wolfe reluctantly agrees to leave the brownstone after Frost produces a letter signed by the directors of the Metropolitan Orchid Show urging him to do so. Wolfe and Archie subsequently meet and discuss the matter with McNair himself, who is noticeably agitated and distressed by events.

Following this, Wolfe and Archie interview the other models who were with Lauck when she died, Thelma Mitchell and Helen Frost. They say that Lauck had stolen the box of candy as a prank, but don’t know where she got it. Although the interview is seemingly unhelpful, Wolfe is intrigued when Helen Frost indicates she knew the contents of the box despite apparently having never seen or handled it. Following the interview, Llewellyn Frost, who has romantic feelings for his cousin and believes that Wolfe intends to incriminate her, tries to terminate his contract with Wolfe, but Wolfe refuses to drop the matter without being paid his full fee. Despite the efforts of Llewellyn Frost, his blustering father Dudley, and Helen’s mother Calida, Wolfe refuses to budge.

Having heard the news of Wolfe's taking the unprecedented step of visiting a crime scene himself, Inspector Cramer arrives to try to find out what Wolfe has discovered. Although Wolfe offers little to Cramer, he makes a suggestion: the next day, Cramer and Archie gather the people of interest in the case and one-by-one offer them a chocolate from a box similar to that which contained the poisoned item that killed Molly Lauck. Making note of who selects what, Archie notes that Boyden McNair’s response is different from the others in that he goes to select a Jordan almond, as the victim did, but then reacts skittishly to the chocolate.

Fearing that Wolfe is about to experience a "relapse" that will draw his attention away from the case, Archie arranges for Helen Frost to come to the brownstone, where Wolfe challenges her regarding her earlier falsehood. Reluctantly, Helen admits that she knew what the contents of the box of candy were, and that the expensive jewellery she wears was given to her by Boyden McNair, who displays a particular fondness towards her. Helen, who considers McNair an uncle due to his long-standing friendship with her mother, believes it is because she reminds McNair of his long-deceased daughter, Glenna, who would have been Helen’s age. Wolfe learns that Helen is only weeks away from her 21st birthday, at which point a trust fund managed by her uncle, Dudley Frost, comes into her possession. Wolfe’s interview with Helen is interrupted by Llewellyn Frost, his lawyer Benjamin Leach, and Perren Gebert, another family friend of the Frosts who has designs of marriage towards Helen.

Later, Boyden McNair meets with Wolfe. He confesses that the box of candy had been intended for him and that he suspects that someone is trying to kill him, although he refuses to say who that might be. He declares that he has made Wolfe the executor of his estate, which includes a red leather box that contains information concerning dealings in his past that he regrets. Before McNair can say where the red box is, however, he is suddenly struck down and killed by poison in a tampered-with bottle of aspirins he has been taking.

Although Wolfe's original contract is voided on McNair's death, Helen Frost—who deeply loved McNair as an uncle and is heartbroken by his death—hires Wolfe to locate the murderer. Wolfe determines that the red box will most likely reveal the culprit, and orders it found. As executor of McNair’s estate, Wolfe sends Saul Panzer, Orrie Cather, Fred Durkin, and Johnny Keems to McNair’s cottage in the country to search the grounds for the box and to keep the police out should they attempt to interfere. Wolfe learns that by the conditions of her trust, if anything were to happen to Helen Frost her inheritance would go to Llewellyn Frost.

Later that night, the operatives at the cottage catch Perren Gebert trying to break in and retrieve something. Archie is sent to collect Gebert and bring him to Wolfe for questioning, but by that point the authorities learn of the existence of the cabin and attempt to search for the red box in it. Archie manages to prevent them from doing so, but is forced to surrender Gebert to their custody. While the police are unable to get any useful information from Gebert, Cramer reveals to Archie that Gebert has been receiving monthly payments of $1,000 from Helen Frost’s trust fund. The next night, after being released from custody Perren Gebert is murdered with a nitrobenzene trap set in his car.

As Cramer is confronting Wolfe about the case, Saul Panzer arrives with a package that prompts Wolfe to have the Frost family and the police summoned to his office in order that he might expose the murderer. Once everyone has arrived, Wolfe reveals that Helen Frost is in fact Glenna McNair, the daughter of Boyden McNair. It was in fact Calida Frost’s daughter Helen who died years before, but as the fortune that Helen would inherit would then go to Dudley and Llewellyn's side of the family, Calida Frost bought Glenna from the then-impoverished Boyden McNair and raised her as Helen. Bitterly regretting what he had done ever since, McNair proceeded to make his fortune, formed an attachment with Helen/Glenna and intimated that he was intending to reveal to truth; Calida Frost killed him to prevent this. Perren Gebert, who knew of the arrangement, had been blackmailing Calida to keep the secret and intended to use this to force her consent to his plans to marry Helen/Glenna. Calida murdered him to keep him silent. Wolfe produces the red box that he claims holds the proof of his accusations; after she looks inside, Calida Frost commits suicide with a bottle of cyanide.

Afterwards, Wolfe reveals that the red box he used is a mock-up; the real box has not been found. Shattered by what she has learned about herself and her family, Glenna McNair has fled to the country, but Wolfe points out to Llewellyn Frost that the fact that they are not in fact cousins and his newfound fortune should eventually help warm her feelings towards him. The actual red box is eventually found in Boyden McNair’s boyhood home in Scotland with plenty of evidence to support Wolfe’s theories, but as Archie notes, "by that time Calida Frost was already buried".

The unfamiliar word

"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.[1] Nero Wolfe's erudite vocabulary is one of the hallmarks of the character. 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.

More transparent was the reason for Mr. Frost's familiarity with so strange a term as 'ortho-cousin,' strictly a word for an anthropologist, though it leaves room for various speculations. ... Ortho-cousins are those whose parents are of the same sex—the children of two brothers or of two sisters; whereas cross-cousins are those whose parents are brother and sister. In some tribes cross-cousins may marry, but not ortho-cousins. Obviously Mr. Frost has investigated the question thoroughly.
He [Llewllyn Frost] stopped, smiling from Wolfe to me and back again like a haberdasher's clerk trying to sell an old number with a big spiff on it.
Boyden McNair, with his right elbow on his knee and his bent head resting on the hand which covered his eyes, sat near Wolfe's desk in the dunce's chair, yclept that by me on the day that District Attorney Anderson of Westchester sat in it while Wolfe made a dunce of him.

Reviews and commentary

The New Yorker

The Red Box was the subject of a squib in the September 28, 1946, issue of The New Yorker magazine:

The 1946 Avon paperback reissue of The Red Box drew the attention of The New Yorker, which listed 17 instances of Wolfe's finger-wiggling (September 28, 1946)
[From "The Red Box," by Rex Stout]
Wolfe wiggled a finger at her. —Page 29.
Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. —Page 31.
He wiggled a finger at Frost. —Page 34.
Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. —Page 45.
Wolfe wiggled a finger. —Page 51.
Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. —Page 104.
Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. —Page 110.
Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. —Page 130.
He wiggled Fritz away with a finger. —Page 142.
Wolfe wiggled a finger at her. —Page 144.
He wiggled a finger at me. —Page 193.
Wolfe wiggled a finger at her. —Page 218.
Wolfe wiggled a finger. —Page 231.
Wolfe wiggled a finger. —Page 237.
Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. —Page 239.
Wolfe wiggled a finger at her. —Page 245.
Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. —Page 255.[4]

"The finical attention of The New Yorker magazine" was noted by critic David Langford in a 1992 article for Million magazine. "It is my impression that Wolfe never again deployed his wiggling finger so often in a single book," Langford wrote.[5]



Nero Wolfe (Radiotelevisione italiana S.p.A.)

Veleno in sartoria (1969)

The Red Box was adapted for the premier program in a series of Nero Wolfe films produced by the Italian television network RAI. Directed by Giuliana Berlinguer from a teleplay by Belisario L. Randone, "Veleno in sartoria" aired February 21, 1969.

The series of black-and-white telemovies stars Tino Buazzelli (Nero Wolfe), Paolo Ferrari (Archie Goodwin), Pupo De Luca (Fritz Brenner), Renzo Palmer (Inspector Cramer), Roberto Pistone (Saul Panzer). Other members of the cast of "Veleno in sartoria" include Carla Gravina (Helen Frost), Marisa Bartoli (Thelma Mitchell), Cecilia Todeschini (Molly Lauck), Andrea Lala (Lew Frost), Aroldo Tieri (Boyden McNair), Barbara Landi (Signora Lamont), Raffaele Giangrande (Dudley Frost), Marina Berti (Callie Frost) and Massimo Serato (Claude Gebert).

La scatola rossa (2012)

Piero Bodrato adapted The Red Box for the seventh episode of the RAI TV series Nero Wolfe (Italy 2012), starring Francesco Pannofino as Nero Wolfe and Pietro Sermonti as Archie Goodwin. Set in 1959 in Rome, where Wolfe and Archie reside after leaving the United States, the series was produced by Casanova Multimedia and Rai Fiction and directed by Riccardo Donna. "La scatola rossa" aired May 17, 2012.[6][7]


The Red Box (2014)

Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, Minnesota, commissioned a world-premiere stage adaption of The Red Box, presented June 6 – July 13, 2014 (previews beginning May 30). Written by Joseph Goodrich and directed by Peter Moore, the two-act production starred E.J. Subkoviak (Nero Wolfe), Sam Pearson (Archie Goodwin), Michael Paul Levin (Inspector Cramer), Jim Pounds (Fritz Brenner, Rene Gebert), Nicholas Leeman (Lew Frost), Rebecca Wilson (Helen Frost), Suzanne Egli (Calida Frost), James Cada (Dudley Frost) and Bob Malos (Boyden McNair).[8][9]

"For audiences who might not be familiar with Wolfe and his trusty assistant Archie Goodwin, it's a terrific introduction to the characters and the milieu," wrote the Saint Paul Pioneer Press.[10]

The stage production was authorized by the estate of Rex Stout; Stout's daughter, Rebecca Stout Bradbury, attended the opening.[11] "It’s something of a surprise that none of the Wolfe novels have been adapted for the stage before," wrote the Twin Cities Daily Planet. "If The Red Box is any indication, many more will be."[12]

Publication history

With a dust jacket by illustrator Eric Fraser, the British first edition of The Red Box was the last Nero Wolfe book published by Cassell (1937)
In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of The Red Box: "Gray cloth, front cover and spine printed with red; rear cover blank. Issued in a mainly black, gray, red and white pictorial dust wrapper … The first edition has the publisher's monogram logo on the copyright page."[14]
In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of The Red Box had a value of between $15,000 and $30,000.[15]


  1. Quoted in Vitaris, Paula, "Miracle on 35th Street: Nero Wolfe on Television," Scarlet Street, issue #45, 2002, p. 36
  2. 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
  3. The New Yorker, April 17, 1937, page 100
  4. The New Yorker, September 28, 1946, page 61
  5. Langford, David, "A Stout Fellow", Ansible; retrieved April 30, 2012
  6. Nero Wolfe, Casanova Multimedia; retrieved May 27, 2012
  7. Nero Wolfe (series televisiva 2012), Italian Wikipedia; retrieved May 27, 2012
  8. "The Red Box". Park Square Theatre. Archived from the original on June 23, 2014. Retrieved 2016-10-05.
  9. Preston, Rohan (June 14, 2014). "It's Nero Wolfe to the rescue in Rex Stout's detective story 'Red Box'". Star Tribune. Retrieved 2016-10-05.
  10. Papatola, Dominic P. (June 7, 2014). "'Red Box' review: Park Square solves the Nero Wolfe puzzle". St. Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved 2016-10-05.
  11. Hewitt, Chris (June 7, 2014). "Fans of detective Nero Wolfe coming to St. Paul to see their hero on stage". St. Paul Pioneer Press. Retrieved 2016-10-05.
  12. Considine, Basil (June 17, 2014). "Theater Review: 'The Red Box' introduces a new detective duo at Park Square Theatre". Twin Cities Daily Planet. Retrieved 2016-10-05.
  13. Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), pp. 11–12. John McAleer, Judson Sapp and Arriean Schemer are associate editors of this definitive publication history.
  14. 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. 12
  15. 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
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