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24Jul/110

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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9Jul/110

Book Review: Murder by the Book

As I wrote last week in my review of The Rubber Band, you never know quite what to expert when you read a Nero Wolfe Mystery.  This is certainly true of Murder by the Book which provides a solid mystery, but also a brilliantly executed and effective element of drama.

The story begins with a particularly desperate Inspector Cramer consulting Wolfe to interpret the only clue in the murder of Leonard Dykes, a man who lived alone with no local living relatives.  It's only a list of names and all Wolfe can offer is that the murdered man was inventing a pseudonym for either himself or a friend.

Fast forward six weeks and a man from Peoria, Illinois wants to hire Wolfe to find who killed his daughter, Joan Wellman. The police insist it was a hit run, but the father thinks it was murder because his daughter wrote to him that day and told him that she had a dinner date with a man named Baird Archer, who had submitted a manuscript she'd rejected and wanted to hire her to help him make it publication-ready.

Wolfe recognizes  Baird Archer as one of the names Inspector Cramer showed him. Wolfe meets with Cramer and agrees to full cooperation as the existence of Baird Archer indicates a tie in with the previous murder.

Wolfe acts on the assumption that the first murder was the author of the book under the pen name Baird Archer, and the second was the editor who reviewed it. Clearly finding out what was in the manuscript is key to solving the case. Wolfe sets Archie, Saul, Fred, and Orrie about the task of locating the typist. Unfortunately, Archie finds Rachel Adams just three minutes after she was pushed out a window. The only net result of his search is a receipt which confirms the existence of the manuscript, but nothing about what was in it.

The death of the typist leaves Wolfe in a precarious position. He has to generate a lead. To do that, Archie has got to shake up the staff of a law firm who harbor dark secrets and dark suspicions, but are keeping everything quiet in order to protect the firm.

Murder by the Book is that rare detective novel that transcends its status to provide compelling human drama. While Wolfe's clients range from neurotic women to men who've cheated on their wives and don't want it come out in a murder investigation, in Murder by the Book we're given a singularly sympathetic client in John Wellman.  Wellman exudes a quiet decency and strength of character that makes the novel work. He has come to hire Wolfe against his wife and his pastor who fear he's sinfully seeking revenge, though Wellman is really concerned about justice.

Unlike millionaires who throw $100,000 at Nero Wolfe like someone else might hire Philip Marlowe for $25 a day,  Wellman is a man of moderate means, well off but not super-wealthy. Wolfe, at one point becomes concerned that the fee is becoming too much for Wellman and the odds of success are becoming narrower. Wellman stands firm: Wolfe can quit the case when Wellman runs out of money.

The only time Wellman considered backing out was when he misunderstood what Wolfe met when he urged Archie to become intimate with the office staff. The way Wolfe meant intimate was in the sense of "characterized by a close or warm personal relationship." However Wellman took an entirely different meaning and was ready to pull out until Archie stepped in and explained not only to save the client, but also his reputation as private eye and ladies man.

Archie does shine in Murder by the Book. Coming off, In the Best Families where Archie held center stage for most of the book, he does so again in Murder by the Book.

Archie's first challenge is to open up the mouths of an office staff that has been dumb to both Wolfe's men and the police.  He gives Orchids to each woman in the firm and invites him to the party at his house. Wolfe leaves the house to avoid business, which in this case involved ten women calling for a party. The liquor flows freely, and then he coaxes the women to ask him about being a detective. He offers to share with them about the case he's working on now.  He talks about the triple murder and then introduces Mr. Wellman and Rachel Adams' mother. They talk about their loss and grief at length. Usually detective novels that focus on puzzles and geniuses stay away from the real human pain that comes from crime, but Murder by the Book doesn't and puts on an emotional tour de force, that helps you sympathize and connect with these strangers in a way you rarely do in Nero Wolfe stories.

On the audiobook version, Michael Pritchard shows the depth of his talent during the scene as he brings both Mrs. Adams and Mr. Wellman to life, as well as the few hecklers in the room.

Archie succeeded in getting the office staff to (for the most part) begin to act like human beings, rather than defenders of a law firm's reputation. Archie managed to force back to the surface, the ugliness that led to the string of murders. This is one case where without Archie, Wolfe couldn't have solved it.

Murder by the Book takes other fun turns. Most notable is Archie's trip to California to bait a trap where he meets the book's exceptional woman, the housewife sister of Leonard Dykes, a character who in her simple common sense outshines the New York professional women Archie spends most of the book with.

In terms of criticisms, there's hardly anything. Though, there did seem to be a lapse of continuity. Coming on the heels of, In The Best Families a year before, Wolfe justifies Archie's trip to California by asking, "Have we ever been pushed such extremes?" This made me chuckle.  "Other than that time, you had to flee the house for five months and assume a false identity, no."

Some have criticized the book for not telling us how the killer's alibi was busted by one of Wolfe's men after Wolfe revealed the murderer. He was about to do this when Cramer interrupted and told him not to. It really isn't believable for a police inspector who believes a murderer has been exposed to let a private investigator share all the evidence for the upcoming trial. And it was a detail that readers just didn't need.

Overall, Murder by the Book is a solid Wolfe story through and through, with rare well-done touches of human drama that show off the depth of Stout's talent.

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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18Jun/110

Book Review: The Rubber Band

The great thing about reading Nero Wolfe novels is you never quite know what to expect. The Nero Wolfe stories are a blend of hard-boiled stories as well as the genius/gentleman detective stories. The exact composition of the blend varies from book to book.

The Rubber Band is definitely closer to the cozy side of mysteries rather than the hardboiled detective story.  Published in 1936, it was the the third of the Nero Wolfe novels and came on the heels of much darker stories in Fer-de-lance and The League of Frightened Men.

The book begins with a corporate executive trying to engage Wolfe to investigate a theft of $30,000 in Cash. The person who has been fingered for the theft by the company's vice-president is the beautiful Miss Clara Fox.

However, Miss Fox also wants to engage Wolfe to help her claim money owed to her father and his partner. An English nobleman in America in the Old West faced hanging by vigilantes. A band of men led by a Mr. Rubber Coleman formed "the Rubber Band" which helped the nobleman escape the vigilantes in exchange for 1/2 of his fortune. Clara recognizes the nobleman who is now quite wealth,  and she calls for  all of her father's partners (except for Mr. Coleman who she can't find)  and their heirs to claim their share of the fortune from the nobleman who is now staying in New York. She offers Wolfe a cut to help her collect.

One of  her father's partners is killed after leaving the Brownstone to meet someone and the police want to question Clara Fox. Wolfe is determined to protect his client and hides her from the police.

This features the first appearance of Lieutenant Rowcliff, everyone's least favorite police detective who gets a search warrant to find Ms. Fox, but Wolfe manages to foil him in a classic set up. This book is full of fantastic characters: A British lord, corporate robber-barons, and an old cowboy among others.

Fox is the first woman to successfully charm Wolfe in the series, with Wolfe even reading Hungarian poetry to her. By the standard of future stories, Wolfe's reaction to her may be a bit bunch, but Stout was still getting a feel for the character when he wrote the Rubber Band.

The somewhat disappointing part of this story was Inspector Cramer. He was almost subserviant to Wolfe, and volunteered the fact that he liked Wolfe.  Clearly, it would take a few more books for Cramer to develop into the hardnosed belligerant cop that we all know and love.

However, for all the early hiccups in the series, The Rubber Band remains an enjoyable and well-paced mystery. In some points, its reminiscent of Agatha Christie stories as well as The Sign of Four. The mystery works out to a clever and satisfying conclusion.

It's a shame that this one wasn't made into a film like the first two books were. Both Fer-de-Lance and League of Frightened Men seemed like much more unlikely adaptations with their very convoluted plots. This one would have made a perfect 1930s mystery movie with the right cast.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

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

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.

13Jun/110

The Nero Wolfe Movie that Guaranteed There Would be No More Nero Wolfe Movies

This is the first 7 minutes of the last of two Nero Wolfe Films,The League of Frightened Men (1937) which was a sequel to, "Meet Nero Wolfe" and was posted on YouTube by a company selling an out of print DVD.

Rex Stout decided not to allow any more movies to be made based on his books, displeased with Lionel Stander's portrayal of Archie Goodwin. The punchdrunk Archie Goodwin portrayal we see in the clip seems to justify the conclusion..

On both the level of the artist and of business, it's understandable why Stout didn't want to make any more films. If films like this made their way into the cultural bloodstream, it would have turned people off to the books. And these movies came very early in the Wolfe franchise.

Filed under: Nero Wolfe, Video No Comments
5Jun/110

The Zeck Trilogy: A Review

 

Holmes had Moriarty, but who did Nero Wolfe have?

For three books, crime boss Arnold Zeck served as an antagonist for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

And Be a Villain

A man who writes a horseracing tip sheet is poisoned on a radio talk show while drinking the sponsor's product. Wolfe is hired to solve the case by the sponsors and the show's star.

On the positive side, this mystery had many twist and turns as to who was even the intended victim. At one point, Wolfe gets so disgusted with the show's staff for lying to him and wasting days of his time that he turns a key piece of information over to Inspector Cramer in hopes that Cramer will find the killer and earn Wolfe's fee for him. When this plan fails, Archie executes a daring move to get Wolfe back on the case.

This particular volume had a few moments where it became a tad tedious. It takes until Chapter 4 for an exact agreement to be reached as to who will be paying Wolfe and how much. Then we have pages consumed by detailing when the staff came in to be interviewed in what turned out to be pointless and fruitless and interviews because they had all agreed to conceal a vital fact. Perhaps, this helps us sympathize with Wolfe when he walks off the case as we're tempted as well.

But, no one ought to walk away. The book's look at the world of 1940s radio is worth the read for fans of old time radio. Also, when Wolfe does get back  on the case, the mystery continues to twist and turn as we wrestle with who was the target and who had opportunity commit the crime.

In And Be a Villain, Zeck plays a minimal role. He threatens Wolfe to be careful where he treads in investigating the case. Wolfe figures out what Zeck's role in the crime the lead to the murder he's investigating, but as the fact isn't essential to the police investigation, he leaves Zeck out of it.

Perhaps, this is the one of the great challenges with the Zeck trilogy. While Holmes and Moriarity were driven by ego and intellectual vanity ever closer towards a fatal confrontation,  Wolfe would rather not deal with Zeck if he had to and all things considered, Zeck would rather not rid the world of Wolfe because it would make the world less interesting. Not, that they're not willing to do what they have to do, but as I finished listening to the audiobook of  And Be a Villain. I knew it was going to take something big to get this rivalry off the ground.

Rating: Satisfactory

The Second Confession

Something would come in The Second Confession. Wolfe takes a case for a rich industrialist who suspects his daughter's girlfriend is a communist. Zeck calls Wolfe and makes it clear that he doesn't want the case investigated and punctuates his demand by shooting up Wolfe's plant room and destroying thousands of dollars in plants.

However, when the young man is murdered, everything is reversed. Zeck wants the man's killer caught and brought to justice. Wolfe begins an investigations with plenty of caveats offered to everyone involved. Along the way,  Wolfe takes on the American Community Party to get information needed to seal his case. The Second Confession shows both the anti-communist leanings of the Montenegrin-born Wolfe as well as Stout. With plenty of twists and a nice bit of political intrigue thrown in, this was a fun and multi-faceted Wolfe story.

Wolfe begins to realize that a confrontation with Zeck may be unavoidable and so he begins to make preparations just in case. However, all things being equal, he'd still rather leave Zeck alone.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

In the Best Families

As The Second Confession ended with Zeck congratulating Wolfe on solving the case and Wolfe once again reiterating his independence, readers have a sense that this can't go on forever.  In The Best Families things at last come to a head. Wolfe agrees to help a woman who merely wants to know where her husband gets his money. Zeck shows his disapproval of Wolfe taking on the case, by intercepting a package of expensive sausages and putting tear gas in its place.

After yet another menacing phone call from Zeck, Wolfe and Archie confer on what to do. Archie figures that since their last encounter with Zeck, they'd taken 40 cases, and Wolfe thinks that running in Zeck every forty cases is quite likely. Wolfe and Archie had to decide whether to oppose Zeck or to acquiesce to him and back off whatever case he didn't want them on. Archie thought that without the other, either one of them might have given in to Zeck, but neither wanted to be seen as cowardly by the other. So their course was set, though Archie didn't know what that course would entail.

Archie goes to spend a weekend with the client and her family to get a feel for her husband, and while he's there, the client is murdered. He calls up Wolfe and fills him in. True to that old saying, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going," Wolfe got going, fleeing the Brownstone, setting up alternate arrangements for his orchids and servants, placing the house on the market, and ordering Archie not to follow him. as he leaves his old friend Marco as Power of Attorney.

The next few chapters after Wolfe's disappearance are fascinating for fans of the Wolfe stories as we get an idea of what the characters would be like in Wolfe's absence. Theodore sulks, Fritz shows almost maternal concern, and Cramer shows up to offer some friendly advice.  Cramer's appearance is noteworthy as it begins with Cramer showing that he's a smart cop and ends with him taking a swing with Archie when the latter suggests Cramer is on the take.

Archie takes center stage in these chapters. Wolfe's disappearance in a bad spot as the DA believes that Wolfe knows who committed the murder and that Archie knows where Wolfe is. Due to Archie's reputation as  a skillful liar, no one believes him when he insists he has no idea where Wolfe has disappeared to.

In addition to this, while Archie is allowed to collect his salary and  stay in the house until a sale occurs, he has been left with nothing to do other than follow up on unfinished cases and collect payments from clients on payment plans. Wolfe left instructions for Archie with Marco that are incredibly vague, "You are to act in the light of experience as guided by intelligence."

Archie is clearly miffed by Wolfe not leaving him holding the bag. He also  misses working with Wolfe. However, unlike a more modern assistant, Archie follow Wolfe's command not to search for him.

The Zeck series does a good job showcasing the complexity of the Archie-Wolfe relationship, with its various elements that are understood by the two, even if they are never spoken.  At times, the relationship seems close to Father-Son or a Mentorship.

Wolfe can be protective of Archie. Indeed, when Archie first learned of Zeck in And Be A Villain, Wolfe ordered Archie to forget he'd heard the name. And there's a sense that Wolfe was continuing that protective behavior by leaving Archie out of the loop during the dangerous preliminary stages of his plan against Zeck, only bringing Archie in when it was absolutely necessary.

Archie doesn't care for being protected, nor was Nero Wolfe's legman meant to sit around for months waiting for Wolfe to make a move.  So, therefore Archie stops taking a salary from Wolfe and opens his own private detective agency.  He hopes his first case will be to solve the murder of Wolfe's last client. When he fails to get cooperation, he drums up business and prides himself on clearly more than Wolfe paid him. Still, when Wolfe comes back, there's no question of staying on his own.

Given that there were 25 years of Wolfe books after In The Best Families, it's not a spoiler to say that Wolfe returns and triumphs over Zeck.  However, I will say that the final showdown is anti-climatic after the fascinating character drama that drives the middle of the story. The final showdown between the two (if we can even call it that) is disappointing.

In the final analysis, Zeck disappoints because he is really not equal to the task in going against  Wolfe. To be sure, he is a dangerous technocrat, but he's  still a technocrat. Zeck builds systems that keep him safe: a network of B, C, and D operatives that shield him while turning a profit. The original racket that incited the murders in And Be a Villain.It seems that nearly every racket that Zeck is involved in is one where Zeck thinks he's figured how to avoid any danger.

In the midst of his foolproof systems, and risk-free crimes, Zeck seems weak at anticipating human behavior, expecting it to fall into neat patterns. Zeck handles Wolfe with typical mafioso style and forces a confrontation that he can't win. Wolfe's understanding of human behavior and his ability to see the flaws in Zeck's systems assured the outcome as soon as Wolfe stepped out of the Brownstone.

The actual mystery of who killed Wolfe's client is relatively simple. And indeed, it's surprising that it remained a secret for so long as the police and was given the key clue early in the book.   Readers could be excused as Stout directed our attention to the character driven story and Wolfe's dealing with Zeck.

So on one hand, In the Best Families had  a weaker mystery and a disappointing villain, but it also offered some insights into Archie and the characters in Wolfe's world. The middle part of the book is interesting enough to carry the rest of the book. So, 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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17May/110

EP0407: Nero Wolfe: The Case of Room 304

Sidney Greenstreet

A woman offers Wolfe $1000 to help her and is then shot while talking to Archie on the phone.  It looks like a suicide, but Archie and Wolfe know it was murder.

Original Air Date: April 27, 1951

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10May/110

EP0402: Nero Wolfe: The Case of the Lost Heir

Sidney Greenstreet

Nero Wolfe is hired to find out if a woman is really the air of a wealthy blind man, but Wolfe suspect the man also fears being murdered.

Original Air Date: April 20, 1951

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3May/111

EP0397: Nero Wolfe: A Slight Case of Perjury

Sidney Greenstreet

A man is acquitted of murder on perjured testimony and  hires Wolfe to locate the real killer.

Original Air Date: April 6, 1951

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26Apr/110

EP0392: Nero Wolfe: The Case of the Tell-tale Ribbon

Sidney Greenstreet

A strange old man delivers Archie and Wolfe a letter requesting immediate help. Archie heads to the home, only to be told that no detective is needed.

Original Air Date: March 30, 1951

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19Apr/110

EP0387: Nero Wolfe: The Case of the Final Page

Sidney Greenstreet

Wolfe and Archie arrive for a dinner date to find their host, a best-selling novelist, murdered.

Original Air Date: March 23, 1951

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