Category: Book Review

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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Book Review: Before Midnight

How annoying can a client or set of clients get? Nero Wolfe finds out in Before Midnight.

After the death of a hot shot advertising executive, his firm hires Wolfe not to find the killer, but to locate the dead man’s wallet which contained the answers to a verse-guessing contest with $800,000 in prizes at stake.

To me, the story plodded along. While some of the suspects were interesting, I couldn’t seriously consider most of them as likely suspects for either the murder or taking the wallet. The focus was on the contestants, four of five whom came from out of town. To go to a place you don’t know, commit a homicide, and evade detection by the police is a tough task, and nothing made me believe any of these out of towners would do it.

What held the story together was watching Wolfe’s clients from the advertising firm of LBA who represented some of the most annoying and foolish clients Wolfe ever had the misfortune of taking on. There was a pleasure of seeing these guys in action that wasn’t unlike watching a trainwreck. Wolfe had been about his leisurely pace of crime solving for 20 years, LBA was in a mode of “hurry up and do something,” even setting a deadline for Wolfe.

The book continues on with their battles with each other and Wolfe for most of the book. Towards the end, just when we’re expecting Wolfe to spend a few chapters and several glasses of beer unraveling the mystery, we’re thrown for a loop with a surprise twist that leaves Wolfe reeling, embarrassed, and determined to get a daring soul who committed a murder right in Wolfe’s office.

The twist makes up for the weakness of the book which was a letdown after the pure brilliance of, Murder by the Book. Still with a twist ending and some classically annoying clients, I’ll give it a:

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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Father Brown’s Not Buying It: A Review of the Incredulity of Father Brown

Twelve years after his second Father Brown books, G.K. Chesterton brought readers a new collection in 1926 entitled, The Incredulity of Father Brown.

While the previous collections titled, The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown had very little with the theme of the stories, Incredulity is a key theme of each story in this collection.

In each story, an event happens to which a miraculous supernatural explanation is offered. Father Brown by and by doesn’t buy into the supernatural solution, but finds a natural, but often amazing solution to the case. Of course, in each case, the people expect Father Brown to go along with a supernatural solution as he’s a priest and all. However, the book makes the point that being religious and being given superstition are not the same thing.

In “The Curse of the Golden Cross,” Brown explains his believe in “common sense as he understands it:

It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

Father Brown applies such incisive common sense to eight problems, with all but one of them involving murder. One thing that makes these stories different is that the goal of the story is not catching the murderer. In the vast majority of cases, the suspect is not caught. The story is about the puzzle and how Father Brown solves it. In one case, “The Oracle of the Dog,” Brown stays one hundred miles away from the scene of the crime and solves it secondhand.

The best story in the book was, “The Arrow of Heaven” which involves the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire in a high tower with an arrow when it was impossible for anyone to be able to shoot it that distance.

“The Miracle of the Moon Crescent” is a fascinating story that has three religious skeptics contemptuously dismiss Father Brown but they begin to think a supernatural cause may be involved in the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire when the police fail to turn up any satisfactory solution.

“The Doom of the Darnaways”  may be one of the most profound stories in the collection. Father Brown encounters a young man whose family is said to be subject to a curse that leads inevitably to murder and suicide. An expert on genetics declares the curse is nonsense, but that heredity indicates the same type of fate. Here Chesterton illustrated that it’s possible for both superstition and science to develop a fatalism about human life and destiny that excludes free and leads people to helplessness and despair. The story has a well-told murder mystery, though I don’t know why Father Brown put off the solution.

There’s not really a story I didn’t like in the collection, although I do think, “Oracle of the Dog” may have a little too much literary criticism and not enough story. Also, some of Chesterton’s rough edges and lack of racial sensitivity are present in this collection. However, if you can get past that, The Incredulity of Father Brown is a truly wonderful collection of stories about the original clerical detective.

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

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A Review of the Columbo Collection

[This was originally slated to be posted on July 9th but was moved to today due to the passing of the great Peter Falk. You may also enjoy our look at the top 10 1970s Columbo episodes in parts one, two, and three ]

It’s been nearly eight and a half years since the last Columbo movie and with star Peter Falk’s health issues assured there would be no sequel. Now Falk’s death may have some folks wanting a little bit more Columbo.

Creator William Link, has returned to working on Columbo sans Peter Falk, writing a play, Columbo Takes the Rap. Last year, Link released The Columbo Collection, the first ever compilation of Columbo short stories, featuring twelve Columbo adventures.

The Columbo Collection is a must for any fan of the series. Usually, writing these sort of volumes falls to people who are not really associated with the series or whose affiliation is loose, and they can’t get the character accurate. Link brings credibility to the stories and gets Columbo pretty close to right.

To truly enjoy the book, your expectations have to be properly set.  Reading the stories is not going to come close to replaciating the fun of watching Columbo on television or the depth of the stories.  Each story is between 15-26 pages long. Some of the preludes to the murder in TV episodes would take longer than that to tell.

Columbo’s unique structure doesn’t lend itself well to these sort of limitations, so it’s no surprise that the book is a mixed bag.

On the positive side, as a master of mystery, Link created several memorable gems, some of which approached the level of being lik e a mini-Columbo episode (imagine Columbo as a half hour TV show):

“The Criminal Criminal Defense Attorney”- A lawyer gets his client acquitted of  rape and then kills him. This story does a good job portraying the mental duel between Columbo and the attorney, and the final clue is classic Columbo. Also, a high powered defense attorney is perhaps the closest any of the stories come to Columbo’s usual battle against an elitest.  The only weak spot of this story is that the motive is hard to believe.

“The Blackest Mail”-The longest story in the book  and well-worth the read. An actress murders a man who is trying to blackmail her by trying to make it look like self-defense. Now she has to evade Columbo. This one did a great job with the cat and mouse chase.

“Trance”-In several stories, Link doesn’t show us the murder, but it’s clear from the beginning who Columbo thinks is “the guy” (to quote Monk.) Such as is the case with “Trance” as we know from the beginning that Columbo’s suspicion lies firmly on a hypnotist that has an airtight alibi. The way that Columbo breaks the alibi is classic. Unfortunately, the way Columbo puts the murderer at the scene of the crime is not credible.

“Murder Allegro”-Another where we don’t see the murder, but are relying on Columbo who is sure that a musician murdered his wife, who was also part of the band. This one is not only a howcatchem but a howdidit. On both points, this story works.

“Photo Finish”-This story was unique in staying in the viewpoint of the murderer from start to finish as she plots the murder of her philandering husband. This character has a very distinct voice as a woman scorned out for revenge at all costs and annoyed by her amateur mistakes in the murder game. Unfortunatley for her, Columbo basically walks into the solution.

Opposite the table of contents, The Columbo Collection also features a very nice sketch of Columbo drawn by Peter Falk.  Link also writes an introduction to his piece that contains much the same information as he’s posted on his website but had a couple interesting added details.

One was about Bert Freed, who was the first actor to play Columbo as the first Columbo telepay was an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show. Link ran into Freed and found out that Freed had forgotten he’d ever played Columbo. Freed had want Link called actor’s amnesia, and it’s easy to forget one role on a forgotten TV show dcades before.  I found it amusing that if Freed had somehow landed on Celebrity Jeopardy, he would missed the question, “The first actor to play Columbo.”

On the negative side,  the story Grief was the weakest of the lot. Everything about the story was tedious. And the story was made worse when Columbo tried to mitigate one elderly man running over another, because the driver thought the pedestrian had committed a hit and run on his dog.

Most of the other stories that aren’t listed above are forgettable, with weak plots, weak conclusions, or weak characters. They don’t possess all of these problems, but they’re seriously handicapped by the short story format and trying to have Columbo have a battle of wits and solve a case in 20 pages.

Also, in many of these stories, Link does a poor job choosing his villains. Part of the appeal of Columbo is the every man again battling the rich, famous, and powerful. Putting Columbo up against other everymen as Link does when he puts Columbo against a Gardener-War Veteran, another cop of about equal rank, a retiree, and a man who lost his girlfriend to a would-be-assassn’s ricochet does just that. Of course, that would be realistic, but Columbo has never been about realism.

The first five stories contain motives buried in psychobabble that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Thankfully, Link proceeds to a pattern of using more traditional motives like jealousy, greed, and revenge which work  far better in short story form.

One hopeful sign is that these stories do appear to be published in the order  in which Link wrote them and the last few attempts are far more refined, with the last three stories all making my list of the gems in the book., which means if he opts to do another Columbo collection, he may be in better form.

Personally, I would probably have much preferred a collection of three or four Columbo novellas which would have provided more time for the format to work.  Still, it was a worthy read, particularly for fans that miss that rumpled rain coat.

Rating:Three Stars out of Five.

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Book Review: The Rubber Band

The great thing about reading Nero Wolfe novels is you never quite know what to expect. The Nero Wolfe stories are a blend of hard-boiled stories as well as the genius/gentleman detective stories. The exact composition of the blend varies from book to book.

The Rubber Band is definitely closer to the cozy side of mysteries rather than the hardboiled detective story.  Published in 1936, it was the the third of the Nero Wolfe novels and came on the heels of much darker stories in Fer-de-lance and The League of Frightened Men.

The book begins with a corporate executive trying to engage Wolfe to investigate a theft of $30,000 in Cash. The person who has been fingered for the theft by the company’s vice-president is the beautiful Miss Clara Fox.

However, Miss Fox also wants to engage Wolfe to help her claim money owed to her father and his partner. An English nobleman in America in the Old West faced hanging by vigilantes. A band of men led by a Mr. Rubber Coleman formed “the Rubber Band” which helped the nobleman escape the vigilantes in exchange for 1/2 of his fortune. Clara recognizes the nobleman who is now quite wealth,  and she calls for  all of her father’s partners (except for Mr. Coleman who she can’t find)  and their heirs to claim their share of the fortune from the nobleman who is now staying in New York. She offers Wolfe a cut to help her collect.

One of  her father’s partners is killed after leaving the Brownstone to meet someone and the police want to question Clara Fox. Wolfe is determined to protect his client and hides her from the police.

This features the first appearance of Lieutenant Rowcliff, everyone’s least favorite police detective who gets a search warrant to find Ms. Fox, but Wolfe manages to foil him in a classic set up. This book is full of fantastic characters: A British lord, corporate robber-barons, and an old cowboy among others.

Fox is the first woman to successfully charm Wolfe in the series, with Wolfe even reading Hungarian poetry to her. By the standard of future stories, Wolfe’s reaction to her may be a bit bunch, but Stout was still getting a feel for the character when he wrote the Rubber Band.

The somewhat disappointing part of this story was Inspector Cramer. He was almost subserviant to Wolfe, and volunteered the fact that he liked Wolfe.  Clearly, it would take a few more books for Cramer to develop into the hardnosed belligerant cop that we all know and love.

However, for all the early hiccups in the series, The Rubber Band remains an enjoyable and well-paced mystery. In some points, its reminiscent of Agatha Christie stories as well as The Sign of Four. The mystery works out to a clever and satisfying conclusion.

It’s a shame that this one wasn’t made into a film like the first two books were. Both Fer-de-Lance and League of Frightened Men seemed like much more unlikely adaptations with their very convoluted plots. This one would have made a perfect 1930s mystery movie with the right cast.

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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