As I wrote last week in my review of The Rubber Band, you never know quite what to expert when you read a Nero Wolfe Mystery. This is certainly true of Murder by the Book which provides a solid mystery, but also a brilliantly executed and effective element of drama.
The story begins with a particularly desperate Inspector Cramer consulting Wolfe to interpret the only clue in the murder of Leonard Dykes, a man who lived alone with no local living relatives. It’s only a list of names and all Wolfe can offer is that the murdered man was inventing a pseudonym for either himself or a friend.
Fast forward six weeks and a man from Peoria, Illinois wants to hire Wolfe to find who killed his daughter, Joan Wellman. The police insist it was a hit run, but the father thinks it was murder because his daughter wrote to him that day and told him that she had a dinner date with a man named Baird Archer, who had submitted a manuscript she’d rejected and wanted to hire her to help him make it publication-ready.
Wolfe recognizes Baird Archer as one of the names Inspector Cramer showed him. Wolfe meets with Cramer and agrees to full cooperation as the existence of Baird Archer indicates a tie in with the previous murder.
Wolfe acts on the assumption that the first murder was the author of the book under the pen name Baird Archer, and the second was the editor who reviewed it. Clearly finding out what was in the manuscript is key to solving the case. Wolfe sets Archie, Saul, Fred, and Orrie about the task of locating the typist. Unfortunately, Archie finds Rachel Adams just three minutes after she was pushed out a window. The only net result of his search is a receipt which confirms the existence of the manuscript, but nothing about what was in it.
The death of the typist leaves Wolfe in a precarious position. He has to generate a lead. To do that, Archie has got to shake up the staff of a law firm who harbor dark secrets and dark suspicions, but are keeping everything quiet in order to protect the firm.
Murder by the Book is that rare detective novel that transcends its status to provide compelling human drama. While Wolfe’s clients range from neurotic women to men who’ve cheated on their wives and don’t want it come out in a murder investigation, in Murder by the Book we’re given a singularly sympathetic client in John Wellman. Wellman exudes a quiet decency and strength of character that makes the novel work. He has come to hire Wolfe against his wife and his pastor who fear he’s sinfully seeking revenge, though Wellman is really concerned about justice.
Unlike millionaires who throw $100,000 at Nero Wolfe like someone else might hire Philip Marlowe for $25 a day, Wellman is a man of moderate means, well off but not super-wealthy. Wolfe, at one point becomes concerned that the fee is becoming too much for Wellman and the odds of success are becoming narrower. Wellman stands firm: Wolfe can quit the case when Wellman runs out of money.
The only time Wellman considered backing out was when he misunderstood what Wolfe met when he urged Archie to become intimate with the office staff. The way Wolfe meant intimate was in the sense of “characterized by a close or warm personal relationship.” However Wellman took an entirely different meaning and was ready to pull out until Archie stepped in and explained not only to save the client, but also his reputation as private eye and ladies man.
Archie does shine in Murder by the Book. Coming off, In the Best Families where Archie held center stage for most of the book, he does so again in Murder by the Book.
Archie’s first challenge is to open up the mouths of an office staff that has been dumb to both Wolfe’s men and the police. He gives Orchids to each woman in the firm and invites him to the party at his house. Wolfe leaves the house to avoid business, which in this case involved ten women calling for a party. The liquor flows freely, and then he coaxes the women to ask him about being a detective. He offers to share with them about the case he’s working on now. He talks about the triple murder and then introduces Mr. Wellman and Rachel Adams’ mother. They talk about their loss and grief at length. Usually detective novels that focus on puzzles and geniuses stay away from the real human pain that comes from crime, but Murder by the Book doesn’t and puts on an emotional tour de force, that helps you sympathize and connect with these strangers in a way you rarely do in Nero Wolfe stories.
On the audiobook version, Michael Pritchard shows the depth of his talent during the scene as he brings both Mrs. Adams and Mr. Wellman to life, as well as the few hecklers in the room.
Archie succeeded in getting the office staff to (for the most part) begin to act like human beings, rather than defenders of a law firm’s reputation. Archie managed to force back to the surface, the ugliness that led to the string of murders. This is one case where without Archie, Wolfe couldn’t have solved it.
Murder by the Book takes other fun turns. Most notable is Archie’s trip to California to bait a trap where he meets the book’s exceptional woman, the housewife sister of Leonard Dykes, a character who in her simple common sense outshines the New York professional women Archie spends most of the book with.
In terms of criticisms, there’s hardly anything. Though, there did seem to be a lapse of continuity. Coming on the heels of, In The Best Families a year before, Wolfe justifies Archie’s trip to California by asking, “Have we ever been pushed such extremes?” This made me chuckle. “Other than that time, you had to flee the house for five months and assume a false identity, no.”
Some have criticized the book for not telling us how the killer’s alibi was busted by one of Wolfe’s men after Wolfe revealed the murderer. He was about to do this when Cramer interrupted and told him not to. It really isn’t believable for a police inspector who believes a murderer has been exposed to let a private investigator share all the evidence for the upcoming trial. And it was a detail that readers just didn’t need.
Overall, Murder by the Book is a solid Wolfe story through and through, with rare well-done touches of human drama that show off the depth of Stout’s talent.
Rating: Very Satisfactory
You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.
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