The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio The great ones are back in action.

4Sep/110

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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27Aug/110

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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21Aug/110

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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14Aug/110

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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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.

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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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