Category: Book Review

Book Review: Gambit

A prominent citizen is accused of murdering one of his daughter’s suitors by poisoning his drink while he’s engaged in a blindfolded chess match with 12 different chess players. Wolfe is hired by the daughter of the accused who believes that her father’s lawyer is up to no good due to being in love with her mother. The lawyer opposes hiring Wolfe which means Wolfe must free his client’s father without his cooperation.

 

The language of Chess figures prominently in the story. Indeed, the title of the story comes from the realization by Wolfe that given that no one other than the accused had a motive to kill the victim leads Wolfe to conclude that the murder was a gambit meant to get the accused out of the way. Wolfe instead of searching for someone with a motive to kill the victim, he has to find someone with a motive to get the accused executed or sent up for life.

Once again, Stout creates a wonderful cast of supporting characters and suspects.  The scene where one suspect offers to hire Wolfe to suborn perjury to get the accused off is comedy gold, particularly as the man expects Wolfe to be on the hook for the crime and to protect him entirely.

Overall, Gambit was surprising in that except for the actual culprit, the suspects turned out to be mostly decent and honest people, a refreshing break with the stereotypical sociopath-filled murder suspect family.

Archie is good as always, and Wolfe is at his eccentric best. The novel opens with Wolfe burning an offensive book in the fireplace: the newest edition of the dictionary which Wolfe views as a threat to the English language. Wolfe asks his prospective client, “Do you use imply and infer interchangeably?… According to this book, you can.”   Wolfe has to struggle to be polite when pressure from her family to drop the case leads his client to take up temporary residence in the Brownstone for several days.

The payoff of the novel is just as good. This one is unique as Archie solves the mystery before Wolfe after obtaining a key clue. Though, both Wolfe (and myself for that matter) figured it out once this clue was revealed. So, for once Archie isn’t the dark when the payoff comes.

The only negative thing I can say about the book is that Stout did seem to be overusing the tape recorder to catch his criminals. It played a role in The Final Deduction as well as a Nero Wolfe novella. Still, overuse of the tape recorder is a small issue in a book that has so much to offer.

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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Book Review: Plot It Yourself

In Plot It Yourself, Rex Stout follows the old writing axiom of, “Write what you know.”

A joint writers-publishers committee turns to Wolfe to stop a plagiarism swindle. Four authors created successful novels and plays were sued by others writers who claiming that the successful works were stolen from them. The unknowns all cashed in with settlements or court victories which cost writers   and publishers in money and reputation.

Wolfe gets hold of the fraudulent manuscripts and by comparing the styles, discovers that with one exception, all of them were written by the same writer. However, when he compares that style to that of other writing by the phony claimants, he discovers that none of them wrote the fraudulent manuscripts, which means that the mastermind of the scam could be anyone and that the writers filing false claims are only shills.

Wolfe tries to beg off the case, but is persuaded to take part in a plan by the committee to pay one of the phony authors to obtain the identity of the mastermind. However, before Archie gets to him, the man is murdered much to the embarrassment of Wolfe and Archie. The body count rises quickly and so does the pressure on Wolfe to crack the case.

The murders at the center of the case were the result of Nero Wolfe bungling by failing to have a man guards the accomplices before approaching them. This seems to be a recurring theme in the Wolfe novels of the 1950s. Wolfe bungles led to deaths in If Death Ever Slept and Before Midnight. At this point, it seems to have been overdone. Master detectives shouldn’t require a warning label.

Other than that, the mystery went very well. I had suspected the murderer early on, but Stout was a master at misdirecting the reader, so I’d moved on to other suspects by the end of the novel.

Wolfe was wonderfully eccentric throughout the novel. He went on strike against himself, offended his own self-esteem, and even swore not to eat meat until the case was solved. Wolfe did go a little over the top when Wolfe spent the last few pages complimenting the murderer and building their self-esteem.

The only other thing to note is that a writer, I found the whole discussion of plagiarism swindles fascinating, however I could see someone who wasn’t a writer being less thrilled with the long and involved discussion that prefaces the case.

For my part, 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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Book Review: Three for the Chair

While shopping in the thrift store, I found a 1968 Bantam Paperback copy of, Three for the Chair, a 1957 compilation of three Nero Wolfe novellas. While the book was not my planned next Nero Wolfe read, I decided to grab it cheap and enjoy the book.

There are three stories in this book and each should be reviewed in its own right.

A Window for Death:

A man who left his family under a cloud of suspicion and then made a fortune in mining, apparently dies of natural causes after returning home.  Members of the family aren’t so sure, and are suspicious of the man’s partner who inherited the entire mining interest. Wolfe is hired to determined whether there is enough to call the police in.

This story is very workmanlike. There’s little action. The majority of the story involves Wolfe questioning witnesses in the Brownstone and the rest involves Archie doing so outside. No added deaths occur and there are no real plot twists. Inspector Cramer does not appear in the story, with A Window for Death ending with Wolfe composing a note to him. Still, the actual solution is pretty clever.

Rating: Satisfactory

Immune to Murder

At the request of an Assistant Secretary of State, Wolfe leaves the comfort of the Brownstone for a rustic fishing resort to help with sensitive oil negotiations by cooking fish for the ambassador who had specifically requested Wolfe. Wolfe hates the  locale and plans to leave after lunch. Wolfe’s plans are upset when Archie discovers the Assistant Secretary of State lying dead in stream.

Given the other potential suspects (members of a diplomatic delegation who are immune to prosecution and two rich oil magnates), the District Attorney suggests absurdly that Archie was there as a hired assassin. The truth doesn’t come out until the murderer does something that insult’s Wolfe’s vanity.

This story was adapted for television on a Nero Wolfe Mystery as the last episode and was panned by fans. In my opinion, there was nothing wrong with either the episode or the story. It was, however unfortunate to make this the last episode, as we had none of the familiar supporting characters that fans loved, plus in the context of a final episode, the solution was unsatisfying. However, in the context of a Nero Wolfe reading binge, the story represents a nice change of pace.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Too Many Detectives

Thanks to Archie’s interest in learning about wiretapping, Wolfe agrees to help a man tap his own phone. Later, Wolfe learns he was duped and the man who hired him didn’t own the phone being tapped.

Wolfe’s embarrassment is deepened when he’s summoned to Albany and forced to endure a long car ride to discuss the matter. Wolfe and Archie to find several other detectives waiting.

When it’s their turn to testify, they learn that the man who fooled them claimed they knew the wiretap was illegal. When it was time for the phony client to testify, he’s found dead, and Wolfe and Archie are arrested as material witnesses.

While Archie and Wolfe are released on bail, they can’t leave  the jurisdiction, a situation Wolfe can’t tolerate. The only way out is for Wolfe to find the killer.

Wolfe compares notes with the other detectives and finds that all but one of them was taken in by the same scheme as Wolfe. Wolfe then gets all six detectives to share every available operative back in New York City to solve the case, leading to a surprising and satisfying solution.

This story in notable for featuring Dol Bonner. Bonner had appeared in her own novel in 1937 and also appeared in a Tecumseh Fox novel. She and Wolfe got along well which had Archie nervous as he figured that Bonner was that rare type of woman Wolfe could actually fall for. Archie even imagines a situation where Archie, Wolfe, Bonner, and Bonner’s assistant Sally Colt all in the Brownstone solving cases together. Thus, even great authors have intriguing ideas occur to themwhich if tried would wreck their franchise.

As an aside, the story makes me curious to read Stout’s Dol Bonner novel.

As for Too Many Detectives, it was truly a good use of an hour and deserving of a:

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Overall rating for the Collection: 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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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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