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4Aug/130

Book Review: Over My Dead Body

In Over My Dead Body, Wolfe's a young Yugoslav woman claiming to be Wolfe's long lost adopted daughter shows up at the Brownstone door needing help with a small matter of being accused of stealing some jewels at a fencing academy where she works. However, the case quickly escalates when a murder happens at the academy and key evidence ends up planted on Archie. Also, the book was published in 1940, and the shadow of the European War looms large with plenty of International intrigue.

The mystery is above average and the final twists took me by surprise, but what makes this book a worthwhile read is the insights it provides into Nero Wolfe's character. Most of Wolfe's life prior to coming to America remains shrouded in mystery and is rarely addressed in the rest of the corpus. How does a man of action and passion, as Wolfe once was, become a very large detective who toils with life's intellectual puzzles and avoids as much rigor and action as possible. Over My Dead Body provides more clues on this question than any book in the corpus. While it doesn't provide explicit answers, we do get a picture of Wolfe's world-weariness and his dread of the new European War which would later give way to enthusiastic anti-Nazi sentiment that would have Wolfe trying to get into the US Army to fight in, "Not Quite Dead Enough."

Also in contrast to, The Doorbell Rings, we're treated to an earlier more cooperative encounter with the FBI as representative of the American people that's both informative and amusing, with the G-man mostly played for comic relief. In this story, Archie much more of a by-stander and witness, but Wolfe puts on a good show, and Over My Dead Body is a solid entry in the series.

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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6Jul/130

Book Review: Death Times Thee

This posthumous collection of Wolfe novellas featured one story that rewrote a Tecumseh Fox novel as a Nero Wolfe novella and two alternate version of Wolfe stories that are part of the corpus.

Bitter End:

This was a reworking of Bad for Business, a novel for Rex Stout's other Detective Tecumseh Fox. necessitated by Stout's desire to make money to support him while he waged his battle against Hitler. I read the original novel but that's hardly necessary. The reworking here is seemless. The plot begins when Wolfe gets a spiked candy from Tingley's Tidbits. While the poison's not deadly, it's bitter and this is enough to get Wolfe on the warpath and make him more than willing to help the niece of the hated CEO of Tingley's. Of course, the case takes on a whole new complexity when the CEO is murdered and the niece finds herself unconscious at the scence of the crime. The story is one of the best in the corpus and Archie really shines.
Rating: Very Satisfactory

Frame Up for Murder:
An expansion of the story, "Murder Is No Joke." Differences are kind of subtle and to be honest, listening to the audiobook, I didn't notice any major changes. "Murder is No Joke" is a solid Wolfe story, so it wouldn't hurt any fan to enjoy this second telling of this story which has Wolfe and Archie seeming to be ear witnesses to murder.

Rating: Satisfactory

Assault on a Brownstone:

This was an early draft of, "Counterfeit for Murder" and may be a case for great writers to destroy early drafts of their works. However, for fans of Wolfe, it's interesting to see how Stout took the story of counterfeitting and murder. In both versions, Hattie Annis comes to Archie after finding counterfeit money in her home due to her hatred of police. In this version, rather than a tennant whose an undercover t-woman being murderered, Hattie Annis herself is. I definitely prefer the published version as Annis was one of Stout's most memorable characters and the T-woman who survived was one of those stock Nero Wolfe story women. That's not to say the story didn't have features. In this version, Archie butts heads with the Treasury Department and the results are hilarious. Still, the ending was bizarrely atypical. However, it's hard to lay too much criticism on the story. It was never met to be published, rather it gave us a look at how Stout originally thought of doing the story. Thankfully he thought better of it.
Rating: Satisfactory

Outside of "Bitter End," the book would be for Wolfe completists only as there's not a lot new if you've read the over novella collections. However, "Bitter End" makes the book worth picking up from the library at the very least.

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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16Jun/130

Book Review: The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep was the first published Philip Marlowe stories. Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to stop another blackmail attempt against for his youngest daughter, Carmen. Marlowe takes on the job and along the way tumbles into a blackmail racket, an illegal porn shop, a few murders, and the ever pressing question of what happened to Rusty Regan, the husband of Sternwood's other daughter Vivian.

From there Marlowe has to navigate the corrupt world of the Sternwood girls, stop the blackmailer, and protecting the dying General Sternwood. As a mystery, the Big Sleep is top notch. The mystery grows more complex the deeper Marlowe gets into it. Marlowe's world is packed with memorable characters that inhabit this gritty world.

And then there's the writing, in the Big Sleep Chandler has a wonderful way with words. The book features quotes like this:

“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”

“Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.”

“Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”

“I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”

Fans who know Marlowe from the radio should be advised that the book is far edgier. It's a world that includes a pornography-related plot and sexual references, though the book avoids graphic description However, the morally redeeming quality of the book is the character of Philip Marlowe, an honest detective living in a code of honor facing a corrupt world that runs from LA's upper class to its underworld.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 stars

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2Jun/130

Book Review: Trio for Blunt Instruments

Trio for Blunt Instruments was the last Nero Wolfe novella collection published during Stout's lifetime and contained three stories.

"Kill Now-Pay Later" Originally published in 1961 sees Wolfe's bootlack dead and suspected of murder. The police theory was that he committed suicide because he found his daughter had been sleeping around. His daughter doesn't buy it and neither does Wolfe. Begrudgingly fears for the daughter's safety and takes her in the brownstone.

He commits himself to solving the case. and he believes that the person who impugned the dead man's daughter's honor is no doubt the one behind it. His solution is to get his client to sue her co-workers and Inspector Cramer for spreading the rumor. Some great reactions from Cramer in this one.

Rating: Satisfactory

"Murder is Corny" was first published in the Novella collection and was the last novella Stout wrote.

When a mutual acquaintence of Archie's and a murdered man tells police that she and Archie were scheduled to meet in the alley where the murdered man is found dead, Archie finds himself  in a pickle.  Wolfe at first declares himself uninterested but when Archie going to jail becomes a real possibility, he digs in.

This one could have been better, but still has the mark of a master detective story with Wolfe insisting that a bad delivery of corn to Wolfe's house is a vital clue, one that Cramer ignores.

Rating: Satisfactory

In 1963's "Blood Will Tell," Archie receives a bloody tie in the mail and a mysterious phone call. When he inspires  into the case, he finds a body and a house full of people with soap operatic lives. However, unlike in the other two stories, Wolfe finds a client and has to unravel this mystery with a good bit of detective work.

Rating: Satisfactory

Overall, there were no great stories, but all of them good and solid Wolfe entries that delivered solid detection, and well-told plots with some great moments, particularly with Inspector Cramer.

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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25May/130

Book Review: The Scandal of Father Brown

This is the final Father Brown collection, containing eight stories (or nine, depending on the collection.) From my point view, G.K. Chesterton really hadn't lost a step in this last collection the year before Chesteron's death in 1936.

The stories all are wonderfully unexpected with a great twist. Why for example would the very orthodox priest seem to help a woman escape with her lover in the title story. Or what was the real misdoing of a radical professor in "The Crime of the Communist?" And who is the mysterious Mr. Blue? And why can't the combined duo of Father Brown and Flambeau solve "The Insoluable Problem?"

These are the some good little mysteries here. Others that I really enjoyed included, "The Quick One" and also if your edition includes it, "The Vampire of the Village" is probably the best story in the collection even though it was in the first edition as Chesterton published it.

Overall, this is a fine final collection and shows the enduring power of Chesterton and his little priest with the umbrella to surprise, amuse, and entertain us while also making us thing.
Rating: 4.75 out of 5.0

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4May/130

Book Review: His Last Bow

His Last Bow was once again intended to be the last Sherlock Holmes Collection by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However, it didn't quite turn out that way. Although he did get Holmes retired, there'd be many more adventures written of previously unchronicled cases.

This book has the fewest stories in it it of all the Holmes collections: seven in British version and eight  if you read the U.S. version. Mostly, it's a strong collection: "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge," "The Red Circle," "The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans," and "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" are as good as any Holmes story out there. The best of these is Wisteria Lodge, there are so many great features in there: a great mystery, international intrigue  and perhaps the most clever official detective introduced in the Holmes Canon.

"The Disappearance of Lady Frances Fairfax," and "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" are good not great stories and "His Last Bow" is one that's enjoyable for its sentiment and patriotism far more than its cleverness or any sort of suspense.

The somewhat controversial story "Adventure of the Cardboard Box" was left out of American editions of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes because it dealt with marital infidelities. It's not for this reason that I didn't enjoy the story . Holmes himself asked not to have his name mentioned in association with it because it was so simple. And perhaps, Watson (or Doyle) would have done better heed it. The problem with the story is that Holmes doesn't do much and the focus instead becomes on a sensation and sordid crime rather than a mind of great detectives. The results are mediocre at best.

Overall, the book holds up pretty well and shows that Doyle was just as adept at writing great mysteries in the early 1910s as he had been in the 1880s and 1890s which is why he'd find himself writing several more Holmes adventures in the 1920s.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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13Apr/130

Book Review: Three Witnesses

This Nero Wofe novella collection published in 1956 contained Nero Wolfe stories originally published in 1954 and 1955.

"The Next Witness" finds Wolfe called as a witness to a peripheral matter in a murder trial. While being out and watching the trial, he becomes convinced that the prosecution's case is wrong and leaves the courtroom with Archie, with going on the run from the law while Wolfe tries to find the truth.

"The Next Witness" is truly a top notch story and it shows Wolfe at his wiliest and most resourceful as he's forced to stay in a strange house, travel around in a car, and question witnesses in strange places. The payoff scene in the courtroom is a brilliant strategem.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

"When a Man Murders"-

This is Nero Wolfe's Enoch Arden case as a millionaire husband returns from after being declared Killed in Action in the Army. However, the wife has a new husband and needs Wolfe's help in trying to reason with the old one. When the old husband's found murdered and suspicion falls on the couple that benefits most, Wolfe is hired to investigate. The Enoch Arden plot has been done quite a bit in mystery fiction. This one is fairly well thought out.

Rating: Satisfactory

"Die Like a Dog"

A man accidentally takes Archie's coat rather than his own. Archie goes to switch coats and finds homicide crawling detectives  all over the scene and given his history, he leaves. However, a dog follows him home.  Wolfe bends over backwards to try and keep the dog while making Archie the one to blame for it. However, Inspector Cramer throws a monkey wrench it when its revealed the dog belongs to the man murdered at the apartment.

This one is good for the characterization as  Wolfe's interplay with the dog is definitely a humanizing factor. The solution seems pretty simple in retrospect but if you read the whole story with everyone walking around it, it seems clever by the time you reach it.

Rating: Satisfactory

The last two stories are above average but the Next Witness is enough to carry the collection to:

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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23Mar/131

Book Review: The Valley of Fear

The Valley of Fear is the last Sherlock Holmes novel. It was originally published in 1915 but is set prior to the events of "The Final Problem." Doyle ignores at least one fact stated by Watson in, "The Final Problem" where Watson claims not to have heard of Moriarity. Here, Holmes introduces Watson far before that as the two go to a castle to investigate the murder of a mysterious American.

The mystery at the castle is well-laid out with a lot of intriguing clues and some nifty deduction. However, the Holmes portion of this story is fairly light. It reads like a slightly longer Short Story rather than a novel. The rest of the novel, much like in A Study in Scarlet is consumed by a look at the back story of the crime which began in America.

The idea of solving a mystery and then telling us the story behind the crime is rarely a good writing method. I had to really slog through Doyle's use of in A Study in Scarlet. I put the book aside when I came on it when a child and didn't pick it up for 20 years. However, this story is more interesting with its focus on the Scowrers, an American secret society that terrorized Pennsylvania and a mysterious stranger that joined them. It was quite riveting reading, so I didn't mind the digression much.

However after that great story, the ending of the book left a bad taste. The 1935 movie, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes was based on this story but gave a radically different end and with good reason. Without spoiling the end I will say, that  for the first time that for all concerned, everyone would have been better off had Holmes not investigated the case.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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26Jan/131

Book Review: Archie Meets Nero Wolfe

When Rex Stout took paper to pen to write the first Nero Wolfe story, the house hold at the old Brownstone was all ready mostly established. On the heels of the Maltese Falcon prequel Spade and Archer, Robert Goldsborough, author of seven Nero Wolfe books from the 1980s and 90s sets down the account of the first meeting between Wolfe and Goodwin guided by clues Stout left in his novels.

Goldsborough anchors the story in the 1920s which is a departure as Wolfe stories have always been set in the "present" but a story of a beginning requires a certain timeframe.  The book begins when Archie arrives in New York, gets a night watchman's job and has no choice but to shoot two thugs. Even though, his decision was appropriate, he was fired by upper management concerned about trigger-happy guards. However, Archie finds his ideal career when he snags a job at the Bascom detective agency.

Bascom is brought on a kidnapping case along with some other operatives including the ever-familiar Orrie Cather, Fred Durkin, and Saul Panzer. The initial goal is to merely ensure the safe return of the boy, who is the son of a wealthy New Yorker. But having done that, Wolfe is determined to catch the kidnappers. To facilitate this, Archie goes to undercover as the boy's bodyguard in hopes of uncovering some information that Wolfe can use to solve the case.

The book's strong point is its overall narrative that tells of the beginning of Archie Goodwin's legendary career and his first encounters with some of his best known associates and foils include Cramer, Stebbins, and the the detectives who worked with Wolfe and Goodwin the most including the teers as well as the less used Bill Gore and Del Bascom. We get to see them a bit more than we would in a typical Wolfe yarn.  While the mystery is not earth-shattering, it's fair and the resolution is handled well in typical Wolfe fashion.

The weak point in the story is that Nero Wolfe doesn't sound quite sound like himself and Archie sounds nothing like himself. Usually, Goldsborough's portrayal of Wolfe was close enough usually but a few times sounded dissonant. Perhaps, the most jarring section was when Wolfe made the statement that prohibition laws were wrong because they were attempting to "legislate morality." However, you feel about "legislating morality," it's become a modern cliche and Nero Wolfe certainly never spoke in cliches.   In addition, one Amazon review points out that Wolfe used "infer" as a synonym for "imply," something that Wolfe would never do.

It's even worse with Archie Goodwin. It would be unreasonable to expect a 19 year old fresh out of Ohio to sound the veteran New York Private eye Rex Stout wrote about for 40 years. However, there wasn't even a hint. This Archie Goodwin is a completely serious and respectful young man who helps to teach the father of the kidnapped the importance of spending time with this boy. To imagine this character developing into a wise cracking lady's man seems almost beyond belief. Whatever can be said of the corrupting influence of a big city or a big city changing someone, the change necessary in Goodwin is too incredible.

Overall, the story lacked the fun of the Stout Wolfe books. However, it answers a lot of questions fans have had about the characters particularly the lesser known ones and provides some satisfaction and Nero Wolfe is still mostly himself. Overall, this could have been a great book if Goldsborough had done a better job of capturing the essence of Stout's characters particularly young Archie Goodwin. As it was, it was only a fair-to-good one.

Rating: Barely Satisfactory

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12Jan/130

Book Review: The Return of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes was the character who would not die Sir Arthur Conan Doyle feared being stuck with Holmes and killed him off in "The Final Problem" published in 1893. Eight years later, he published another Holmes novel albeit one set before Holmes death. But in 1903, he relented and returned Holmes to life with the short story, "The Empty House." The story was followed by twelve others which were collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Coming upon this collection, I was somewhat surprised. Many literary critics speak of later Holmes stories as weaker than the first. I actually found this collection to be, if anything stronger than the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Stories such as "The Empty House," "The Norwood Builder," "The Dancing Men," and "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" are pure classics. From the first story to the last, Holmes is at his best as the master of deduction.

The flaws in this collection are minor. The ending to the "The Missing Three-Quarter" didn't quite live up to the build up and "The Golden Pince-Nez" was a tad melodramatic. However, this doesn't really subtract from the beauty of this selection. In the last story, "The Adventure of the Second Stain," Doyle trials to end the Holmes story by having Holmes forbid Watson from publishing further adventures. However, after this book, there was no way that would last.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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