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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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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: If Death Ever Slept

In If Death Ever Slept what Nero Wolfe later describes as a joint act of "mulishness" leads Wolfe to  undertake a case he would have never taken otherwise as Archie goes undercover as Alan Green, the secretary to an eccentric millionaire named Otis Jarrell who believes his daughter-in-law is "a snake" who obtained information from his in-home office and shared it with a competitor who beat him out of a business arrangement.

The client is aware of both Archie and Wolfe by reputation, and Archie quickly learns that Wolfe was only hired to gain Archie's help. Jarrell offers Archie a personal fee in addition to Wolfe's fee for finding or fabricating evidence that leads his son to divorce his daughter-in-law. Archie doesn't want any part of that arrangement, but decides to stay on to earn a fee for Wolfe by finding out how and if information was leaked from the office.

In the midst of this, a gun disappears from the client's office and the client ignores Archie's advice to report the theft to the police as required by law. When, a man is murdered with the same caliber bullet as the missing gun, Wolfe and Archie are left in a real pickle. Their goal is no longer to earn a fee, but to extricate themselves from this mess with their licenses and reputations intact.

Rex Stout outdid himself in creating the Jarrell household as fully formed and interesting characters. The women are particularly fun including the wealthy secretary, the eccentric daughter, and the flirty stepmother. In addition, Stout builds a complete family culture that is no less real than the culture of Wolfe's house on 35th street. The Jarrell home  also has a very unique and interesting character. 

A highlight were the scenes in Wolfe's office where Archie remained undercover and Orrie Cather impersonated Archie Goodwin.

The mystery is good enough. The solution is achieved in a very workmanlike fashion that involves an itenary for each suspect. The one downside of the audiobook version is that it takes about half an hour to read through the 4-day itenaries. Still, with great characters and Dol Bonner appearing to discover the vital clue, I'll give, If Death Ever Slept:

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: Too Many Cooks

In the first three Nero Wolfe books, Rex Stout firmly established that Wolfe rarely leaves the house. From 1937-46, Wolfe was routinely pushed out of the Brownstone by Stout with only two stories in this period allowing him to stay homebound:

  • The Red Box (1937) sent Wolfe to a clothing store to question witnesses at the behest of a client and peers in the orchid community.
  • Some Buried Caesar (1939) had Wolfe head upstate to put his orchids on display at an exposition.
  • Where There's a Will (1940): had Wolfe visit a client's house.
  • Black Orchids (1942) was the first novella collection and  saw Wolfe heading out to another flower show where a murder occurred in the first of two stories.
  • Not Quite Dead Enough (1944) featured Wolfe leaving the Brownstone in both novellas.
  • The Silent Speaker (1946): Wolfe goes to police headquarters to report to an inspector who replaced Cramer on a case.

However, it wouldn't be until the 1950s that  Wolfe was pulled as far from his home as in Too Many Cooks which sees Wolfe boarding a train to attend a convention of famous cooks in a West Virginia resort town where Wolfe had been invited as a guest of honor to speak about American contributions to fine dining. One of the great cooks, Philip Laszio is despised by his fellows for stealing recipes and for a Machivellian rise through the culinary world, and is killed with suspicion falling on the other cooks.

A wet behind the ears prosecutor asks for Wolfe's help in the case. When one of Wolfe's suggestions leads to the imprisonment of  a prestigious chef , Wolfe has to set to work to find out what happened.

This book introduced Wolfe's lifelong friend, Marco Vukcic, the owner of Rosterman's as a character. Vukcic served as a humanizing force on the Wolfe character. Vukcic was one of the few people to call Wolfe by his first name. Wolfe's sentiment for Vukcic is in full force when he's confronted by the widow of the murdered man (who was Vukcic's ex-wife) and Wolfe delivers a classic smackdown for  her ruthlessness.

Even involved in the stereotypically genteel world of cooks, there are risks. At one point in the course of his investigation, Wolfe ends up getting shot.

One controversey that surrounds the book is the use of racial epithets. This  is, after all, the South in the 1930s, and it sounds it. There are about a dozen or so uses of the "N-word" and Archie uses a only slightly less offensive term a couple of times. So, it's hardly at the Huckleberry Finn level of racial language, but like Mark Twain, Stout had a point.

Of course, this is a detective book, so the points couldn't be too fine or too preachy, and whatever point he'd have to make would have to tie in to the story. On these points, Stout succeeded. Wolfe has reason to believe that the staff know who committed the crime after hearing from a relucant witness that the killer was black.

Wolfe decides to bring the staff up into his suite for questioning. Archie thinks the entire excercise will be a waste of time, as they cops hadn't gotten anything out of them and that Wolfe wouldn't know how to communicate with blacks.

Wolfe begins his session by humbly expressing his gratitude to the men for the privilege of being able to come to America. He then learns the men's names and refers to them by their proper names unless otherwise requested. In other words, Wolfe treated them with the same courtesy and respect that he initially gives to everyone he questions. And through that, Wolfe is eventually able to get their help.

What Stout communicates to a segregated America is that the way to live together in harmony is to treat every person with equal dignity, and judge them on their character.  As Wolfe says, " ... the ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded." It's very powerfully done and not disruptive to the story.

Too Many Cooks is not without its flaws. The first few chapters drag a bit. However, the biggest weakness of the story is that Wolfe dominates the story line to such an extent that there's really not a whole lot for Archie to do.

Outside of a couple scenes on the train to and from New York, the action is confined to the resort, probably within a couple hundred yards of Wolfe's room. Archie is usually the focal point of the investigation with a lot of action and runing errand. Here Archie is more reactive and doesn't even get off many good lines of dialogue. Archie is about as useful and important to the plot as Captain Hastings in a Poirot book. Wolfe's next novel also took Wolfe away from the Brownstone in, Some Buried Caesar, but in that one, Stout wisely gave Archie a lot more play.

While I can't say it's a criticism, the story points to an inconsistency in the Wolfe universe. In Too Many Cooks, Wolfe prepares and delivers a lengthy speech (not fully included) on American contributions to fine dining, and at the final banquet, an all American gourmet dinner is served. Twenty years later in The Next Wintess, Wolfe commends chili as  "One of the few contributions America has to world cuisine."   One wonders why Stout changed Wolfe's mind on this point, or if Stout simply forgot Wolfe had delivered a stirring defense of American contributions to cooking.

The book also includes the recipes for the All-American gourmet meal, the preparation  of which is beyond my simple talents. (If you have cookied the recipes in this book, please share your experience in the comments.)

Overall, Stout prepared a very good recipe in Too Many Cooks, although it could have used a dash or two more of Archie Goodwin action.

Overall, 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: Might as Well Be Dead

In Might as Well Be Dead, Wolfe is hired by a Nebraska businessman to find his son, Paul Herald. The older Herald had exiled his son eleven years earlier  on the belief his son had stolen $11,000 from the business but had since learned that someone else committed the theft. He turns to Wolfe as a last result after having contacted the police and submitting a classified ad to get his son's attention.

Because Herald had monogramed luggage that he took with him, Wolfe supposed  the that Paul retained the same initials and so ordered a display ad taken out, address to PH and written in a way that Wolfe felt would be more likely to gain a response as he promises to help PH clear his name of the crime he was falsely accused of without forcing him to renewing any bonds he'd renounced.

Wolfe gets a response all right because a P.H. is on trial for murder and several people think Wolfe is going to intervene in the Peter Hayes murder trial. Looking at the newspaper picture, both Wolfe and Archie dismiss the possibility of Peter Hayes being Paul Herald, but after Hayes' attorney pays the brownstone a visit, Archie believes an in-person examination is in order. When Archie sees Hayes' expression when found guilty, he's almost certain that Hayes and Herald are one and the same.

With the help of Herald's lawyer, Archie gets an in-person interview that cinches it, but Herald begs Archie not to reveal his true identity for fear of the pain it would cause his mother and sisters.

Wolfe faces a dilemma and decides not to tell his client but to press ahead, find the truth, clear Paul Herald of the crime and then report to his client once he's cleared his son.

What follows is an amazing series of twists and surprises, of mysteries inside mysteries that represent the series at its best. Every recurring character is in top form, particularly Wolfe.  Wolfe has no relapses to speak of, though he does reach a point where he believes that he's found enough information so the police can wrap it up, but Cramer lets him know after a few days that's not the case.

The story takes on an added human element with the murder of a detective working for Wolfe, Johnny Keems. Might as Well Be Dead showcases Wolfe's humanity and sense of justice is on full display (as much as it ever is) right up and to Wolfe's magnanimous gesture at the end of the book.

If this had been a third season of Nero Wolfe, this would have been a worthy project to adapt. Though, they would probably have to work with the scene where Archie and Saul Panzer find the final clue due to the grittiness of the scene, but it could be done. This book was adapted for the William Conrad Nero Wolfe series in the 1980s.

Might as Well Be Dead is also interesting for the number of times that a prior Wolfe novel is mentioned. Archie brings up an incident from Fer-de-Lance to a couple different witnesses. Stebens mentions one  from, The Red Box. And Archie tells us that the kids in the neighborhood have viewed Wolfe's house with suspicion since, in The Golden Spiders, twelve year old Pete Drosos obtained a meeting with Wolfe and was then murdered.

These references were a reminder that 23 books into the Wolfe canon, the series was clearly becoming an American Cliassic, and Might As Well Be Dead is a crowning achievement.

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 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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