Imagine Nero Wolfe in Montana, talking about a case while he and Archie sit on rocks and Wolfe is sitting bare foot outside near a stream.
Such is one of the very interesting scenes that take place in Death of a Dude. While on vacation at Lilly Rowan’s ranch, the ranch foreman is accused of shooting a man in the back. The sheriff has a political axe to grind against the foreman and arrests him on a murder charge, but Archie sets out to clear him and when his vacation runs out, Archie writes Wolfe a letter putting himself on an indefinite leave of absence.
Archie runs into a brick wall into trying to solve the case as no one will talk to him as he’s an outsider. Wolfe finds Archie’s absence so intolerable that he does the unthinkable: boards a plane and flies into Helena and drives down to help Archie solve the case. Actually, he tries to talk Archie out of leaving Montana, so when Archie won’t budget, solving the case is the only option left him.
Death of a Dude succeeds in taking our characters entirely out of their normal environment and Stout does a fantastic job of creating this amazing cast of characters and setting for Archie and Wolfe to inhabit.
Wolfe takes everything in stride, even as he journeys to a location that requires he drive around in cars a lot, shake hands with people, and be away from his orchids. This type of book is a reminder to me why I think labeling Wolfe as “agoraphobic” is somewhat of a misnomer. Wolfe can leave the Brownstone anytime he wants to, he just usually doesn’t want to.
The mystery and actual crime detection in the story is its weakest element. Indeed, this is the type of case that Inspector Cramer could solve in two days and get the right man if he’d been on it from the start. All Wolfe needs is a modicum of intelligence and the willingness to pay Saul Panzer whatever it takes to get the foreman off and secure him and Archie’s return to New York. All that stands his way is a stupid and corrupt sheriff. The payoff is much the less usual “bang” ending of many early Nero Wolfe novels and much more of a fizzle.
However, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin remain those great detective personalities that can turn a lesser mystery in a good detective story through their presence, and with a great location, Stout creates a great fish out of water story with Wolfe surviving and thriving far outside his comfort zone.
This was the last Nero Wolfe novel of the 1960s, Stout would take a break of five years before writing another Nero Wolfe novel. Maybe, that one will have more mystery. Still, for a fun rate with our favorite detective duo I’ll give this one:
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