Category: Book Review

Book Review: Some Buried Caesar


Nero Wolfe has one of the most extensive recurring supporting casts of any detective in literature: the crook Fritz, Inspector Cramer, and the three teers (Saul, Fred, and Orrie.)

Some Buried Caesar (1939) is surprising in that it’s completely devoid of all of that, with Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin being the only recognizable features. Indeed, Wolfe and Archie only appear in his famous Brownstone in the final post-mystery scene.

In Some Buried Caesar, while driving to an exposition to enter Wolfe’s prized orchids in it, Archie and Wolfe are involved in a car accident. In their efforts to help, Wolfe is trapped on a stump by a prized bull. They’re rescued and offered hospitality by the bull’s owner, Thomas Pratt, who plans (to the horror of local stockmen) to barbecue the prized bull for publicity for his automat. Clyde Osgood, the son of Pratt’s rival, makes Pratt a bet that he will not barbecue Caesar that week.

Subsequently, Clyde Osgood is found dead in Caesar’s pasture. Wolfe doesn’t say anything until asked to investigate by Fredrick Osgood, the dead man’s father. Wolfe believes he has the evidence of who the murderer is but he has to come up with another plan when that evidence goes up in smoke.

This book is a showcase of Stout’s genius for creating entire communities of characters with complex relationships between them. Among the characters introduced was Archie’s longtime girlfriend Lily Rowan. Wolfe is at his most wily and sagacious, showing that he can operate out of his element if he has to. Archie is probably at his most amusing at this book. My favorite part is when Archie is arrested and attempts to organize a union among the prisoners. This is one of the finest books in the Wolfe canon and the best of the pre-War Nero Wolfe novels.

Rating: Very Satisfactory.

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Book Review: Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories


This  book collects every Hercule Poirot short story. Most of these are under twenty pages, and could be read in a few spare moments but there are four or five that could be considered novellas.

Polirot’s career in short fiction was far shorter than in novel-length works, with most of the short stories completed in a stretch from 1923-1940. The stories show progress the evolution of Poirot as a character and Christie as a writer.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s not a bad story in this collection. However, the earliest stories are fun, diverting and very well-done puzzle mysteries reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes with Captain Hastings filling the role of Poirot’s Watson. Twelve of the final thirteen stories comprise The Labours of Hercules which manages to mix some delightful comedy, social commentary, and some warmth (such as the delightful “The Arcardian Deer”) as Poirot tries to perform his own twelve labors just as the original Hercules did.

In addition, I adored “The Theft of the Royal Ruby,” a wonderful Poirot mystery set at Christmastime. It has superb atmosphere throughout.  The final tale in the boook, “Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” is a brilliantly crafted mystery with a very surprising conclusion.

The only criticism I have is that this only includes the published short stories. Two unpublished Christie shorts were found in 2004 and given an audiobook release a few years back and it would have been nice to see them in this book.

Still, even with just the published stories, this book is an absolute treasure, collecting fifty adventures of one of fiction’s greatest detectives in a single volume.

Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Moonstone

Published more than a decade before A Study in Scarlet, The Moonstone was the first detective novel, although two decades after Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin stories. In it, a young woman receives a fabulous Indian diamond (believed to be cursed and hunted by fanatical Hindu priests travelling incognito.) at her birthday party at her family’s country house. The diamond is stolen and the reactions of its owner and many other people are quite bizarre and mysterious.

There’s a lot to commend the story. The character of Gabriel Betteredge, the family is delightful, a character who is fiercely loyal to the family serves, old fashioned, is quirky, and opinionated, while also being very kind and decent. The two fifths of the book where he serves as narrator had me fully engaged with his love of Robinson Crusoe and his homespun philosophy. Sergeant Cuff, the independent detective called in to consult the case, really is a well-drawn early picture of that sort of consulting detective who’d taken the world by storm by the end of the 19th.

The mystery itself was interesting and had some fairly good twists.  It’d be easy for many modern readers to view the novel as cliched, but it was all original back in 1868. The book is worth reading for its historic value as it provides key insights into the development of one the most popular forms of fiction ever devised.

In terms of how the book held up after nearly 150 years, I have mixed feelings. Collins was a good writer and most of the chapters were quite interesting, but he lacks that timeless quality of the best writers in that great era of British literature. The Moonstone uses multiple first-person narrators, each offering their own account of various events in the story. Some are there for scores of pages, some only one or two.  The problem I had is  I didn’t find many of these narrators compelling, and many I didn’t care about at all.

The Miss Clack chapters were the most tedious reading I had in a long time as Mr. Collins seemed to have gone off on a very long tangent about religious hypocrisy that seemed really unrelated to the story. The book really does seem to lose focus in the middle, and there’s way too much melodrama. The book could have easily been 100 pages shorter and been better for it.

Still, there’s no denying that the book was a groundbreaking work and that every fan of  detective fiction owes a debt to Collins. As a mystery itself, there’s so much to commend the story even if it’s hurt by a few (by modern standards) questionable narrative decisions. Still, I found it more interesting as a historical artifact than as leisure reading.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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Book Review: Black Orchids


Note: This week, with a lot on my plate in terms and upcoming releases, we revisit a book review from 2012. 

Nero Wolfe had twice as many novels published as Sherlock Holmes before he ever broke into short fiction. However, author Rex Stout would create some of his most memorable stories in the Wolfe novellas. The first two of these are collected in Black Orchids. 

Black Orchids

The titular story for the collection was originally published as “Death Wears an Orchid.” Archie has found himself assigned to flower show duty to watch a new black orchid bred by Lewis Hewitt to see whether it wilts or not. Wolfe finally makes a trip down in person to see it. But then fate takes a hand. Archie picks up a stick, setting in motion a Rube Goldberg style murder, which is the least practical part of the story.

The stick that served as the trigger belonged to Hewitt. Wolfe offers to solve the case and protect Hewitt in exchange for all three of the black orchid plants, insisting on them in advance.

To hold on to his plants, Wolfe has to not only sift through blackmail and jealousies of orchid growers, but he has to endure not one, but two women living under his roof, all while keeping his client’s name out of the press. Wolfe has a clever and somewhat shocking way of doing this that makes for a great twist ending.

Rating: Satisfactory

Cordially Invited to Meet Death

New York’s Premier party planner, Beth Huddleston, engages Wolfe to stop malicious letters that are threatening to ruin her business.  Wolfe has her entire household under suspicion and sends Archie out to investigate. Archie finds a virtual madhouse with a chimp that blocks his way unless he plays tag with him as well as bears roaming around. Their investigation is cut short when Huddleston dies of a tetanus infection with Wolfe only having learned one key thing: the secret to preparing great corn beef hash.

However, Huddleston’s brother is convinced she was murdered. Archie finds proof that the death was no accident, however Wolfe has little reason to be investigate as he has no client. But when Cramer insults Wolfe by taking a dinner guest downtown for questioning, Wolfe resolves to solve the case and he plans to rub Cramer’s face in it.

Within the story, Archie offers a mystery as to why Wolfe sent some of the rare black orchids to Huddleston’s funeral. The question is left open though Archie offers readers their choice of potential theories. Archie confesses there may even have been some past association between Wolfe and Beth Huddleston, but that much of Wolfe’s past remains a mystery to him.  And the puzzle of the black orchids only adds to Wolfe’s mystery.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Collection Rating: Very Satisfactory

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Book Review: Doc Savage: The Wristling Wraith


In The Whistling Wraith, a visiting king disappears en route from Blair House to the White House and Doc Savage is called in to investigate in broad daylight with cameras watching. Doc Savage is sent to Washington to investigate and things only get more mysterious as there’s a mysterious woman, kidnapping, a plot involving currency, and most mysteriously the appearance of the whistling specter of a long-dead king.

For those  not familiar with Doc Savage,  the”Man of Bronze” is a pulp hero created by Lester Dent in 1933. He was raised by a group of scientists and experts in various disciplines to the peak of human mental and physical perfection.  He’s extremely wealthy and famous with a wide variety of adventures. He was created in 1933, so he pre-dated the superhero genre. To put him in a modern context, it’d be fair to say Doc was part Batman, part Sherlock Holmes, and part Indiana Jones. He’s surrounded himself with assistants, accomplished  men in their own fields, all with their own eccentricities such as the “homely chemist” Monk Mayfair and the “dapper lawyer” Ham Brooks.

This book was written by Will Murray in the 1993 based on an idea by Lester Dent and is one of the best Doc Savage stories I’ve encountered. This book does several things right.

First, it has an interesting way of treating Savage’s assistants. Usually novels either limit Savage to two or three of his five assistants or include all five but have them keep getting lost. This book took a different tact with the assistants split into two groups for most of the book, with two in one and three in another. As they rarely shared the same scene, everyone got a chance to shine.

Second, this novel gave Savage some challenges he usually doesn’t have. Savage is wealthy, brilliant,  physically near superhuman, and holds an honorary rank of Police Inspector in London and in New York as well as an honorary Federal Agent and can obtain the cooperation of any civilized police department on Earth, a favor Doc usually returns by telling the police nothing about his investigations.

However in The Whistling Wraith, Doc and friends find the NYPD has revoked Doc’s honorary commission. When the police are called by Doc’s foes (who have conveniently planted a body on the premises), Inspector “Push ’em Down” Samson of the NYPD shows up trying to collect, its up to Doc to put him off until he can solve the case. While in other stories, having a police foil is clichéd. Here it provides Doc some needed tension and it’s a nice change of pace.

Also, Doc and his assistants have to dodge the press and public, who are far more aware of him than he’d like after a story appeared in a true crime magazine. Their being hounded by photographers and autograph seekers on the street is an interesting element and something you’d expect given how these characters are and it was brilliant of Murray to put that in.

Third, this is a really complicated mystery that borders on being convoluted, but I don’t think crosses that line. At first glance, it appears to be a simple mystery disappearance with a bit of a ghost mystery thrown in. However, the Whistling Wraith is a story of not just strange disappearances and murders but currency manipulation, political intrigue, and science fiction shenanigans. I guessed part of the solution before the end, but there was a lot I didn’t know and the reveal was really good.

As to negatives, two things stand out. First is the portrayal of political stuff in Congress. It was completely unrealistic as described, even for the 1930s era the story was set in.  While this story was in the style of pulps, it wouldn’t have hurt the story to tell the political stuff realistically rather than making processes up.  As it was, the unbelievable political scenes took me out of the story.

I also have to admit I didn’t like Doc’s treatment of Patricia “Pat” Savage in this story. Pat is Doc’s only living relative and wants to take part in his adventures. Sometimes he lets her, often he insists she stays out of it and she persists anyway. In this story, his efforts to keep her out are  rude, abrupt, and way too pushy, even as she shows herself more competent than ever, rescuing three of Doc’s men after overcoming a kidnapper. I felt sorry for Pat and infuriated with Doc for the way he kept treating her.

Still, despite these flaws, this is a solid pulp story. Yeah, it has the normal flaws you associate with a Doc Savage novel (and accept if you’re a fan of the Man of Bronze), but it’s also got a great plot and some really fascinating turns.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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