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14Aug/110

Book Review: The Red Box

The Red Box was the fourth of the Nero Wolfe novels and begins somewhat abruptly in the middle of the initial interview with Wolfe’s client. With a desperate need for a client, Archie connives with a potential client to get Wolfe to leave his house to travel down to a fashion firm several blocks away to interview witnesses in the poisoning death of a model who ate a candy from a box of chocolate and diet.  The client presents Wolfe with a letter from fellow orchid growers citing his participation in Orchid and urging him to undertake the case in the name of decency.

The client, Lew Frost wants Wolfe solve the murder and get his cousin Helen (who he is in love with) to quit her modeling job, as she is a wealthy heiress who is set to inherit a $2 million estate.

Despite his hating every moment, Wolfe uncovers one valuable clue in the course of his trip, in his interview with Ms. Frost and uncovers who the poison was really intended for. On confronting the target of the poison in his office on 35th street, Wolfe is shocked to learn that the man has made him the executor of his estate. He also wanted Wolfe to undertake a case for him, and an important to element of this was to be found in a red box, but before he could reveal the location of the box, he dies. Though, thanks to the will he remains a client.

As Archie says, this case is one client after another. Lew Frost dismisses Wolfe, but his cousin Helen hires Wolfe to find the poisoner, so Wolfe has yet another client.

The book contains a number of interesting features. The best may be Wolfe’s relationship with Helen Frost. It begins on a very rocky basis, but Wolfe ultimately wins her confidence and Helen matures throughout the book. It’s an interesting note that Wolfe seems to have an interesting effect on many spoiled children by treating them like adults. This is as compared to Helen’s friends and family who dote on her like she’s a child incapable of making her own decisions.

Also, my one big criticism of The Rubber Band was that Cramer was almost subservient to Wolfe. The Red Box thankfully has none of that as Cramer develops quite nicely and seems to be set in his cynicism and impatience with Wolfe’s games.

The story goes along quite nicely until the end when the book hits two big problems.

First, is a third murder, which was incredible. Stout’s fell into the mystery writer’s  trap of creating a murder scenario that is too clever to be practical. This murder involved carrying a volatile liquid in a purse or briefcase to a funeral, sneaking into the parking ar, getting into the murder victim’s car, and pouring this liquid into a teacup and then precariously positioning  the tea cup so that the victim will bump it and spill it on himself. The liquid by the way is so toxic that even casual exposure will send you to the hospital.  Rather than commending the plan for its ingenuity, Wolfe ought to have condemned its pure silliness that depended on dumb luck.

The second problem was the ending. While Wolfe used phony evidence to gain confessions or murder’s self-destructions several times, this particular book seemed to me to have the cheapest use of this trick I’ve yet encountered. And Wolfe’s actions hardly seem to work for his client’s emotional well-being. The main reason for Wolfe’s trick appeared to save the time and expense of finding the last missing necessary piece of the puzzle by substituting a phony.

However weak the end, I still enjoyed the book, with the Wolfe-Helen Frost relationship and the development of Inspector Cramer. While the book is probably the weakest of the first four installments of Nero Wolfe, I’ll give the book:
Rating: Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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