Category: Nero Wolfe

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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Top 10 Nero Wolfe Novellas, Part Three

I continue my list of the top 10 Nero Wolfe Novellas. See Part One and Part Two.

3) Disguise for Murder (1950)

This one was adapted for A Nero Wolfe Mystery and it was also done for CBC’s Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. So, it’s a stand out whenever anyone looks at adapting the Wolfe canon, and for good reason.

Wolfe has been talked into opening the brownstone and his orchid to a flower club. At the event, a woman takes Archie aside to confide him that she recognized a murderer at the party, but she’ll only confide it to Wolfe. It goes without saying that before Archie can get Wolfe back to the office, the woman is killed in Wolfe’s office.

This is not only unfortunate, but very inconvenient for Wolfe as Inspector Cramer peevishly orders the office sealed and Wolfe just as peevishly refuses to divulge a key observation to Cramer. Cramer uses Wolfe’s dining room to interrogate the witnesses and Wolfe orders Fritz to make sandwiches for everyone but the police. The novella is far more subtle than the Television version for A&E, as it quietly shows the tension between Wolfe and the official police rather than Wolfe shouting at the police.

The story than features one of the most memorable climaxes in the Wolfe canon with Archie facing more physical danger than ever and a truly surprising solution.

2) Counterfeit for Murder (1961)

A woman named Hattie Annis comes to Wolfe’s door looking quite disheveled and unlike the high value clients that Wolfe usually pays for and Archie’s not inclined to let her in. However, Archie’s willing to let her see the big guy because Wolfe is under the impression that he’s a sucker for a certain type of woman and Archie thinks it’ll be fun to show Wolfe up.

Hattie has a stack of money that she found in her boarding house which shelters showbiz people whether they can pay their $5 a week rent or not. When Wolfe sends Archie to the boarding house to investigate, they find an undercover female Treasury Agent dead.

The cop-hating Hattie Annis is without a doubt Wolfe’s most interesting client so far. Her speech and personality (she calls Wolfe “Falstaff”) make the story one of the most enjoyable to read in the canon.

The mystery isn’t half bad either. Throw in some T-men and the NYPD in a turf war and there are Few Wolfe stories of any length that can beat this one for pure entertainment value.

1) The Next Witness (1951)

“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, going on the run from the law while Wolfe tries to find the truth.

It’s fascinating to read of Wolfe out in the light, asking questions of people in their own place of business is an incredible change of pace. There’s also a classic scene with Wolfe in a diner eating Chili and waxing philosophical about it.

“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 features one of Wolfe’s most brilliant stratagems.

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

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Top 10 Nero Wolfe Novellas, Part Two

I continue my list of the top 10 Nero Wolfe Novellas. See Part One

6) Door to Death  (1949) : When Theodore has to take care of his ailing mother and take an indefinite leave as orchid nurse for Wolfe, Wolfe is left with the full time job taking care of them. This becomes so intolerable that Wolfe not only leaves the brownstone, but gets in a car and travels to hire away Andy, the gardener of a wealthy upstate family to tend the orchids. However, before Wolfe can get away with the replacement orchid tender, a dead body is discovered and Andy is the prime suspect.

Wolfe’s determination to find an acceptable replacement for Theordore was enough to interest him in solving the case. However, when a young woman has the impertinence to call him Nero, Wolfe becomes determined to solve the case even as he’s being ordered out by the local police. Wolfe goes to extreme measures to get back into the house and obtain an opportunity to investigate it.

This story that showed both Wolfe’s genius and self-awareness as Wolfe insists on staying away from home knowing that if he goes home, he’ll be impossible to get back out. And this is a case Wolfe wants to solve.

5) Help Wanted, Male (1945): In this last war-time Nero Wolfe story, a man comes to Wolfe for help when someone sends him a letter threatening murder. Wolfe provides his stock response and refuses the case advising him that there’s little that can be done to prevent a murder and suggests he tries hiring someone else.

When the man is murdered, Cramer questions him and Wolfe informs Cramer that he is, “not interested, not involved, and not curious.” However, this all changes when Wolfe receives a letter identical to the one sent to the murdered man.

Archie leaves for Washington on Army business, when he returns to New York, he finds that Wolfe has hired a king-sized decoy at $100 a day until Wolfe is able to identify the real killer.

The story is well-executed a nice variation on the Wolfe formula and the identity of the murderer is a great twist as well.

4) Before I Die (1947): In two prior novellas set during World War II, particularly in “Booby Trap,” Archie made a point of Wolfe’s kitchen being free of black market goods. Wolfe was extremely patriotic during the war.

By the time 1947 came around, the war was over but the meat shortages were still going on as the U.S. was trying to feed war-torn Europe. Wolfe had about had it. His hunger for some black market meat leads him to take on a job for a notorious mobster who might help him score some meat. The mobster had hired a convict from Salt Lake City to pretend to be his daughter in order to protect his real daughter from his rivals. But the fake daughter commences to blackmail him and wants Wolfe to make it stop.

Before Wolfe can do that, Archie is present for the murder of the faux daughter and the mobster. Wolfe has landed he and Archie in a tight spot. Will Wolfe uncover the identity of the true killer or will his appetite finally be the death of he and Archie?

The characters in the short story are fantastic, particularly the mob boss. With three on-screen shootings in the story, it has more action than the average Nero Wolfe story. “Before I Die” is also fun because Stout manages to take Wolfe out of his comfort zone as he deals with New York mafiosos, but still manages to handle himself surprising well.

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

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The Top 10 Nero Wolfe Novellas, Part One

This week, we begin a look at the very best of Rex Stout’s 39 Nero Wolfe novellas.  Note, the 33 Novels will be covered at a later date. We’re only counting down the most memorable short stories featuring one of fiction’s greatest detectives.

10) Murder is No Joke (1958): A woman comes to Wolfe’s office concerned that her brother’s business is being destroyed by a woman who has some hold over her. She wants Wolfe to investigate her but doesn’t have the money to pay him. However, she offers to pay Wolfe to call the woman. Wolfe dials the number and is promptly insulted by the woman and then hears sounds that indicates violence has occurred. Archie calls the woman’s office and finds she has indeed been murdered with Wolfe and Archie as likely ear witnesses.

However, Wolfe has a sense that someone is trying to make a fool of him and sets out to uncover the truth of what really happened and how the suicide of a formerly promising actress plays into what happened. He sends Archie down to the office where the murdered woman worked to ask about correspondence from the actress who committed suicide.

The highlight of this story is when Archie wants to know why Wolfe is an investigating and Wolfe and Archie share a moment of detective zen when Wolfe opens Archie’s eyes to a key clue. All in all, the story has a good cast of characters and a solution that really shocked me.

9) Bitter End (1940): This was a reworking of Bad for Business, a novel for Rex Stout’s other Detective Tecumseh Fox. It was necessitated by Stout’s desire to make some money before he put all of his energy into fighting against Nazi Germany. It was published in a magazine in 1940, but not actually published in book form until ten years after Stout’s death.

I read the original novel but that’s hardly necessary. The reworking here is seamless. 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.

8) Christmas Party (1957) Archie connives to get a fake wedding license for a dancing partner who wants her to boss to marry her. The boss is being stubborn so Archie gets a fake marriage license blank with both their names on it to force the issue.

When Wolfe starts to get bossy and unreasonable in demanding Archie drive him to meet an orchid expert, Archie springs the marriage license on and tells him that he’s getting married. Wolfe is displeased but Archie gets out of the errand.

Archie ends up attending the Christmas Party where the boss is murdered and Santa mysteriously disappears after the crime is committed. Archie also can’t find the fake wedding license which has him at risk of a forgery charge. When Archie gets home he finds out that Santa was none other than Nero Wolfe, spying on him and his supposed fiancée. To make matters worse, a jealous young woman who believes Archie’s Faux fiancee was the murderess demands that Wolfe connive to help frame her. Otherwise, Wolfe will have to endure the embarrassment of being exposed as Santa. Wolfe and Archie are in a pickle and it takes all of Wolfe’s wits to get them out.

7) Instead of Evidence (1946) A partner in a novelty company comes to Wolfe convinced that his business partner’s going to kill him. He doesn’t Wolfe to prevent the murder, only to catch the murderer. Wolfe balks at the paltry $5000 offered to him as the bulk of it will be taken by taxes. However, he offers to report what the man has told him to  the police and take whatever action he deems appropriate.

The man is murdered by a potent exploding cigar  and Wolfe reports his visit to the police.  Dealing with people in the novelty industry allows Stout’s humor to run wild as the murder victim’s partner manages to chase Wolfe out of his own office. As usual, Archie is frustrated with the pace of Wolfe’s investigation. But don’t worry, this is one story that ends with a bang.

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Book Review: Murder in the Ballpark

I’m sure Robert Goldsborough is a nice man and he’s nobly tried to carry on the Nero Wolfe stories. I bare him no animus.

That said, this is the worst mystery novel I’ve read in my life. It’s a bad novel as a Nero Wolfe book, and it’s a horrible mystery.

It begins on the cover. The cover trim is nice (only one of two good things I can say about the book), but the picture looks like a cheap public domain picture and I’m not sure what era it’s from.

This was important, as I was thrown by the timing of the novel. Goldsborough previous run of Wolfe novels updated Wolfe to the late 1980s and early ’90s. His most recent, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe Mysteries was set in the 1920s when Archie first met Nero Wolfe. This one was set in the 1950s for some reason.

However, since that wasn’t clear from the get go, I didn’t think at the time that it was odd for Archie to be asking for and receiving an info dump from Saul Panzer. However, given that this is the 1950s Archie Goodwin, the same one who has read  both the Gazette and Times every day, having Saul suddenly give all the back story on a prominent State Senator for Archie’s benefit was inexplicable.

Archie and Saul are in the park and they see the selfsame Senator murdered in the state and make a bee-line for the exit. The fact that they were at the stadium to see the murder doesn’t serve any purpose for the plot, and nearly all the information that Saul Panzer dumped in Chapter 1 for some reason is later repeated by other characters throughout the book meaning the entire first Chapter was completely pointless.

From Chapters 2-26, there are key two points to address:

First of all, Archie Goodwin as written by Rex Stout is one of the most fun to read narrators in any language. Unfortunately, Goldsborough appears to have completely lost that in this book. All the rough edges and the humor that makes Archie so fun to read is gone leading to a very flat narrative that lacks personality.

This brings me to the second big complaint with the bulk of this book, it is boring. The questioning is repetitive and irrelevant, the dialogue is dull, the the characters are uninteresting and shallow, the settings aren’t interesting. The progress of the case is mostly uninteresting. There were two exceptions to this. There was a so-so scene with Archie, Saul, and some gangsters that’s okay. The sister of a veteran who committed suicide is a decent character though histrionics in the last act kind of weaken her power. But other than that, it’s a tedious tale.

We get to see totally unnecessary details. For example, Archie wants to talk to a suspect who is a candidate to replace the State Senator and so instead of making an appointment or arranging to see her when she’s not busy, Archie goes down to a long press conference about a proposed state highway that goes on for four pages.

Worst of all, nothing in the interaction between the long-standing characters sizzles. Two visits by Cramer are dull beyond belief, and there are no good moments for Archie or Wolfe.

Chapter 27 stands out as the one entertaining chapter in the book where Goldsborough did something Stout never did. He showed us in detail how Archie managed to gather all the suspects for the denouement and how he manages to get everyone including the murderer there. It was a fun chapter as Archie plays everyone. If the rest of the book where this good, this would have been a five star book.

Unfortunately, the final showdown doesn’t go well and that is a shame because in the three prior Goldsborough books I’d read, he usually finished the book strong with a good final scene for Wolfe. In this case, the drama is minor and the interruptions Wolfe allows really detract from the scene particularly after Wolfe threatens to (but doesn’t) eject the offending parties.

The solution has two problems. First, it’s far fetched particularly given that the murder weapon was a high powered rifle where the bullet traveled to its target in about a third of as second.

Not only that, but it basically means that most of the line of inquiry in the book was a waste of our time. The nature of the solution and the whole story behind the murder made it the type of story that Rex Stout might have told, but it would have been in a novella rather than a novel. The effort to stretch this story out for more tan 220 pages led to it being padded beyond reason.

I also have to comment that Goldsborough’s Wolfe was weaker than in other stories, particularly his very stilted dialogue at the end of the book. This is a shame because Goldsborough has usually had a decent grasp of Wolfe, but not so in this story.

Rating: Flummery

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