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Book Review: Black Orchids

Nero Wolfe had twice as many novels published as Sherlock 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 title 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 when Archie triggers the murder when he picks up a stick, triggering 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 mad house with a Chimp that blocks his way in 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 Corned Beef hash which Wolfe achieved through a precedent-breaking decision to  allow a woman suspect into the kitchen to help him.

However, her brother is convinced its murder. When Archie and the brother both get the same idea and proof is found that the death was no accident, Wolfe has little reason to be engaged as he has no client. However, when Cramer insults Wolfe by taking a dinner guest downtown for questioning, Wolfe not only resolves to solve the case. 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 and never answers the question. 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

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 Black Mountain

Having firmly established the rules of Nero Wolfe's first few books, Rex Stout felt free to force Wolfe to bend or break some of his rules.  Other than In the Best Families, Stout never forced Wolfe to break so many rules as he did in The Black Mountain.

Wolfe's lifelong friend Marco Vukcic is killed and Wolfe leaves the Brownstone in a cab to pay a visit the crime scene and goes to question witnesses. Then, tracing Marco's murder to his support of Montenegrin rebels opposing the Yugoslav Government under Tito, he and Archie  fly to Italy and cross the Adriatic an old boat and begin a hike to the place o f Wolfe's birth under assumed names with no passports. Archie doesn't speak any of the languages, so he has to rely on Wolfe's translations to even let us know what is being said.

This is definitely not the typical Nero Wolfe story, which is what some people don't like about it. However, I thought this story worked very well. It was thought provoking in many ways, not the least of which was how much of Wolfe's eccentricity was put on as he abandons many of them in order to complete this mission to track down Vukcic's killer. We also have a few hints of what Wolfe's life was like before he departed for America.  Stout as he does in countless novels, breathes life into his setting.

Stout's Yugoslavia is a Cold War backwater where you don't know quite who to trust and the oppression of the Communists has cowed the Montenegrin people, a fact that clearly pains Wolfe.  The story is filled with intrigue and espionage on multiple levels.

The story does lack the same level of influence for Archie. There's no girl for Archie to chase  as he can't understand one word of the languages, thwarting any romantic inquiries.  Archie also gets little chance to mouth off to authority except in the first few chapters which are set in New York.

However, this is one novel where the spotlight is rightly on Nero Wolfe, who shines. The story encounters Wolfe dealing with his most personal loss. Wolfe, ever the master of words, uses action instead to show his feelings about Marco as he travels half way around the world to bring Marco's killer to justice. Of course, words come in handy when, in the face of the lawlessness dominating his homeland, he decides to get killer back to the United States trial without extradition. To achieve this, he has to create one of his most elaborate and risky rouses he's ever undertaken. And even then, the action doesn't let up until the final page.

Overall, one of the best I've read yet.

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: Trouble in Triplicate

Trouble in Triplicate was the third Nero Wolfe novella collection. It was the first to feature three stories (as the vast majority of Wolfe collections did.) One thing to understand is that oddly enough, the stories were not collected in the chronological order of publication. Usually this wouldn't make a difference, but the first and third stories are set after World War II and the second is set in the middle of the War. It's an odd publishing decision. Perhaps, they opted to arrange them in alphabetical order.  This is perhaps the most questionable decision about this collection of three stories with Wolfe and Archie. Two of the stories were dramatized for A Nero Wolfe Mystery and the outcome of none of the cases were a mystery for me.  That didn't reduce  my enjoyment of the book in the least.

With that said, below are the stories:

Before I Die: 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.

Overall I give the story:

Rating: Very Satisfactory

"Help Wanted, Male"

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. If you've not seen the TV episode, the identity of the murderer is a great twist as well.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

"Instead of Evidence": 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.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Overall collection 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: Please Death of a Dude

Imagine Nero Wolfe in Montana, talking about a case while he and Archie sit on rocks and Wolfe is sitting bare foot outside near a stream.

Such is one of the very interesting scenes that take place in Death of a Dude. While on vacation at Lilly Rowan's ranch, the ranch foreman is accused of shooting a man in the back. The sheriff has a political axe to grind against the foreman and arrests him on a murder charge, but Archie sets out to clear him and when his vacation runs out, Archie writes Wolfe a letter putting himself on an indefinite leave of absence.

Archie runs into a brick wall into trying to solve the case as no one will talk to him as he's an outsider. Wolfe finds Archie's absence so intolerable that he does the unthinkable: boards a plane and flies into Helena and drives down to help Archie solve the case. Actually, he tries to talk Archie out of leaving Montana, so when Archie won't budget, solving the case is the only option left him.


Death of a Dude succeeds in taking our characters entirely out of their normal environment and Stout does a fantastic job of creating this amazing cast of characters and setting for Archie and Wolfe to inhabit.

Wolfe takes everything in stride, even as he journeys to a location that requires he drive around in cars a lot, shake hands with people, and be away from his orchids. This type of book is a reminder to me why I think labeling Wolfe as "agoraphobic" is somewhat of a misnomer. Wolfe can leave the Brownstone anytime he wants to, he just usually doesn't want to.


The mystery and actual crime detection in the story is its weakest element. Indeed, this is the type of case that Inspector Cramer could solve in two days and get the right man if he'd been on it from the start. All Wolfe needs is a modicum of intelligence and the willingness to pay Saul Panzer whatever it takes to get the foreman off and secure him and Archie's return to New York.  All that stands his way is a stupid and corrupt sheriff. The payoff is much the less usual "bang" ending of many early Nero Wolfe novels and much more of a fizzle.


However, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin remain those great detective personalities that can turn a lesser mystery in a good detective story through their presence, and with a  great location, Stout creates a great fish out of water story with Wolfe surviving and thriving far outside his comfort zone.


This was the last Nero Wolfe novel of the 1960s, Stout would take a break of five years before writing another Nero Wolfe novel. Maybe, that one will have more mystery. Still, for a fun rate with our favorite detective duo I'll give this one:

Rating: Satisfactory

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


Book Review: The Father Hunt

In The Father Hunt, Amy DeNovo, a twenty-four year old woman helping Lily Rowan research a book about her father, asks for Archie's help to find out who her father was.  Archie wants to help, but as she only has $2,000, he knows that Wolfe won't take the job. However, De Novo shows up at Wolfe's office with $20,000 and Wolfe wants to know how she got it.

De Novo's mother was killed in an apparent hit and run accident. Every month, since Amy was born, she received a check for $1,000. Her mother wrote that the money had come from her father.

Archie and Wolfe begin an investigation that takes them into a world of powerful, rich men in search of the father. In addition, the father may have been been responsible for the murder of Amy's mother. Wolfe's client from, Death of a Doxy 

This is somewhat different than other Wolfe novels. It's much of more of a straight detective story.   In addition, the only murder in the story occurs before Wolfe comes on the scene.  The story is good and incredibly engaging, though more similar to the Wolfe novellas.

I also love the sensitivity which Stout as he writes about Amy DeNovo. Her desire is understandable and very human. Along the way, Stout reveals a lot about the character of Amy's parents and her story is resolved quite nicely.

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

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


Book Review: Too Many Women

In Too Many Women, Wolfe is brought on a personnel matter. The Naylor-Kerr company studying employee retention asked supervisors to fill out a card for each departed employee. One manager sets off a sensation when he lists the reason for one employee's departure as "murdered." Officially, the police had said the case was a hit and run. Wolfe and Archie are hired to quiet the rumors one way or another.

The client's idea was to have Wolfe come and work undercover at the firm. Wolfe rejects this absurd idea out of hand but as he and Archie are quarreling he's more than happy to have Archie go undercover as a consultant at the firm.

Archie finds himself involved in a complex web of rumors, gossips, and office jealousies in this post-war office dominated by females. The supervisor who made the original allegation informs Archie that he knows who the killer is. Archie reports the statement and then the supervisor is retracts it and is killed in the same manner as the first victim. Now Archie and Wolfe have to catch a murderer.

This is actually not one of my favorite Wolfe stories and I seem to be in the minority on this. I thought the overall idea of domestic discord in the Wolfe household was better handled in If Death Ever Slept. In Too Many Women, Wolfe has managed to tick everyone in the household off: Archie by demanding he replace his typewriter, Fritz through his interference in cooking, and Theodore by putting non-Orchid flowers into the orchid area. It's hard to believe that Wolfe would simultaneously irritate everyone at the same time by interferring everyone else's business given how much effort has gone in to establishing the tranquility of this home.

I also have to note that Stout did something different with his chaptering. Usually, Nero Wolfe books have around 20 (or less) chapters of about equal length with the first few chapters perhaps being a little longer as Stout establishes the premise of the story. Stout, chose to use several quick chapters at the beginning as the story was being established. An action-packed or suspenseful book can benefit from short chapters as it adds tension. However, Stout's use of short chapters at the beginning gives you the feeling that the book is going nowhere fast when you look up and see that you've reached Chapter 11 and nothing significant has happened.

Stout usually crafts some interesting supporters characters. No such luck in Too Many Women. With the exception of the person who alleged the murder and one woman in the officers, the employees at Naylor-Kerr are mostly the same: hot-headed men and amorous gossiping women.

The story redeems itself towards the end when Wolfe and Archie rally under police pressure to patch up the differences and uses the deception and gossip within the office to solve the case. The end is particularly noteworthy given that the killer never sets foot in Wolfe's office, which is certainly unusual for Wolfe stories.

Rating: Satisfactory

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


Book Review: A Right to Die

Nero Wolfe encountered Paul Whipple in 1938's Too Many Cooks as a black waiter in West Virginia studying anthropology. Wolfe obtained Whipple's help in solving the murder of a famous chef.

Twenty-four years laters, Whipple calls in his marker to get a favor from Wolfe. Now an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, he shows up unannounced at the Brownstone and quotes Wolfe's remarks on racial equality with Wolfe stating, "The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded."

The professor quotes this speech of Wolfe's and then, with no sense of irony whatsoever, asks Wolfe to investigate his son's fiancee' to find out what's wrong with her as she's a white woman wanting to marry his son. Wolfe objects to the investigation, but at last agrees to do the job in order to repay the debt he owes to Whiple for helping him solve the case.

Archie meets the woman in question and finds her to be an eager and earnest civil rights campaigner who also believes strongly in the potential of Whipple's son. She tells Lily Rohan that she thinks he'll be the first black Mayor of New York. Convinced their wasting their time, Wolfe still sends Archie out to he young woman's hometown in the Midwest for a thorough check. All Archie finds out is that a suitor took his own life on her doorstep. Archie's about ready to give up the investigation when the decision before him when the young woman is found murdered.

However Archie and Wolfe aren't out of it for long. When the younger Whipple is charged with the murder, Wolfe sets out to serve justice and repay his decades old dobt to the young man's father.

There are many questions that are raised by A Right to Die. For practical plot purposes, I wonder whether every key witness in a Nero Wolfe case is entitled to one free case from Nero Wolfe. The book also gloss es over the agelessness of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin as Nero and Archie haven't aged a day while the young waiter is old enough to have an adult son working at a Civil Rights organization.

The book also serves us a large  dodse of social commentary. Stout and Wolfe both supported the civil rights movement, but Stout raises several issues in the book including reverse racism, prejudice, and perils of race consciousness. The book actually presents an interesting contrast on the latter issue. Wolfe treats blacks in the story the same as white and is accused of racism. On the other hand, Wolfe doesn't believe the younger Whipple is going to be charged due to flimsy evidence and motive. The Whipples are certain that he will be charged, but Wolfe reaffirms his belief by stating that while New York City isn't perfect, "it's not Dixie." Wolfe is proven wrong when Whipple is charged.

Stout also decided to be even more avant garde and have Archie fall in love with a black woman. However, Archie never approaches the woman romantically and never says anything outside of his official capacity. And the woman barely says anything, and nothing noteworthy the entire book. While, I know that inter-racial dating was really not done as a rule in 1964, what Stout manages to do is to create the most shallow and one-sided of the many "romances" of Archie Goodwin.

The second murder was also a bit telegraphed. The victim called Archie and mentioned that he suspected about the murder and would give them a call back because he didn't want to talk about it until he was sure. Next thing, we knew the victim was dead. I always wondered why, having experienced this same phenomena a few dozen times, Archie never says, "You know the last twelve people who had that idea were murdered before they got back to me. How about you come over and tell me about it and we can go ask together?"

Wolfe spends most of the book in a fog and only solves the  case on a hunch. Clearly, A Right to Die is not among the better books in the series. However, the investigation while not particularly fruitful does produce some interesting moments including a couple of trips by Archie out of town. And Stout works in some very ironic moments that work quite well.

Overall, 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: 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: The Final Deduction

In The Final Deduction, Wolfe is hired as insurance by a woman whose husband has been kidnapped. However, Wolfe's client is being particularly cagey about the information she'll share with Wolfe. Wolfe does manage to get a meeting with the woman's secretary who has said she heard the call from the kidnapper. Wolfe and Archie both conclude that she was part of the kidnapping plot.

After the money drop, the husband is returned alive, but soon afterwards the secretary and the hush and are both murdered while Wolfe and Archie find themselves in a spot as their client had told them not to tell about the kidnapping until 48 hours after it occurred.

However, along with trouble comes opportunity. With their duty complete, the son of their original client wants Wolfe's help to recover the half million dollars in ransom money which his mother has told him he can keep if he finds it. In exchange for this, Wolfe will get a 20% cut.

This book was a very well-balanced Nero Wolfe mystery. Plenty of Archie and Wolfe interactions, a good cast of characters in the victim's family, and a decent mystery. Stout also has some clever word play. The word "deduction" is worked throughout the book in both its meaning to tax law and its meaning to the detective.

It's also of somewhat historical interest as a peek at the world of the pre-JFK Income Tax Code. Wolfe's reason for accepting the 2nd case was that if he managed to collect, he'd work himself into the 80% Tax Bracket. At which point, it wouldn't make sense for him to take on any more work as he'd end up in the 90% bracket and only keeping a dime of every dollar earned. His clients were in the slightly higher 91% tax bracket. Both would play a key factor in the story, so you have to wrap your mind around that which can be difficult when the current top marginal rate is 36%.

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: Where There’s a Will

The family of a deceased millionaire come to Wolfe to mediate a dispute over their brother's will, which surprisingly left little to the man's wife and sisters, but left the balance to an unrelated woman. The will didn't meet many of the brother's  promises including leaving a million dollars to one sister's university.

Wolfe's job is simply to negotiate with the man's unrelated heiress, but the case takes on a whole new complexion when its learned that the millionaire has been murdered, and the only way for Wolfe to question all the suspects is to leave the Brownstone.

Archie and Wolfe are at their best in this novel,  and the mystery has a very clever solution.

The big negative of this story is that unlike in both previous and later Wolfe novels, the family is not all that interesting.  While the Hawthorne sisters are very accomplished women from a family of very accomplished people that doesn't make them interesting characters. Indeed, they are a bit flat.

Still, with Wolfe and Archie on the job and no other major snags, I'll give this one:

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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