Last week, I wrote about the awful cancellation of A Nero Wolfe Mystery twenty-one years ago. This week, I want to continue the theme in a much more fun way. I’m going to imagine what Season 3 of A Nero Wolfe Mystery might have looked like had it not been canceled by A&E, and had they continued to produce solid adaptations of the works of Rex Stout.
I have no inside information. For the purpose of this exercise, I’m imagining that I were charged with the task, what books and short stories I think should have been adapted, and which I would have liked to have seen.
In Season 2, there were sixteen episodes made with four novels adapted in two parts, and eight short stories adapted in a single part. I’ll assume we have the same length for our imaginary season.
The first thing I’d do is lead off with the novel Some Buried Caesar. In Season 2, the series had become far bolder about adventures that took Wolfe away from the brownstone with, “The Next Witness,” and “Immune to Murder,” two short stories. Why not take Wolfe away from the brownstone for a full-length novel, or, in the series, a two-part episode? Some Buried Caesar finds Archie and Wolfe on their way to exhibit Wolfe’s orchids in upstate New York when they have a car accident. When walking to a nearby house, the two are menaced by a prize bull. Eventually the body of a neighbor turns up, apparently gored, but Wolfe suspects murder. This would be a Wolfe story with an entirely different feel. The presence of Wolfe and Archie would be a constant, but the regular crew is mostly out of it as we take Wolfe and Archie out of their element to upstate New York. It would also be only the second pre-War Wolfe book adapted, and it features Lily Rowan, a character not served well on TV. Bringing this to life would be a standing achievement of the entire run.
A short story, set a couple of years later, is “Black Orchids”, when Wolfe once again leaves his brownstone, visits an orchid exhibition, finds himself near the scene of a murder, and a wealthy orchid fancier hires Wolfe, for a high price indeed. This would be a story that would require the crew of A Nero Wolfe Mystery to upgrade the plant room sets, and I’d definitely be there for it.
The short story adaptations of A Nero Wolfe Mystery would often be interlinked, so that when the series played in many European countries, the two episodes could be combined into feature-length packages. Based on that, “Cordially Invited to Meet Death” would be a great matching episode. It’s about a party planner who hires Wolfe because she fears someone’s trying to ruin her business. She then turns up dead. It’s not only the second story in the Black Orchids novella collection, it also has a linking plot element.
That brings us to the second novel of the season. I’d go with the 1956 novel Might as Well Be Dead. A Nebraska businessman comes to Wolfe to find his son, whom he exiled for stealing from the family business. The father has learned that someone else did it, and wants to reconcile with his son. Archie finds the son, but he’s been charged with a murder and doesn’t want his father to know, for fear of bringing shame on the family. This was a decent episode of the 1980s TV show, but expanded to two hours in the A Nero Wolfe Mystery style, this would have been an absolute gem, with its twisty mystery and great emotional throughline.
Our second novella pair would begin with “Murder is No Joke”, in which Wolfe and Archie on the phone are used as an alibi in a murder. This would be a good story because Stout actually expanded it for a magazine and retitled it “Frame Up for Murder.” So the writers would have a lot of choices as to what would work best on television. This would be good paired with “Instead of Evidence”, in which the co-owner of a novelty company is murdered after coming to Wolfe.
The third novel would be The Father Hunt, in which a young woman hires Wolfe to find out who her father was. This story came from the 1960s, an era that the production team seemed to love. It’s also a great mystery with a solid emotional core.
Next up, we’d do four short stories in two separate pairings. Here, I’m going to admit that in order to satisfy the European market, I’d want to have two great short stories adapted and two that are merely okay.
First up, I’d want to do “Bitter End”, in which Wolfe is drawn into an investigation of strange goings on at a candy company after getting a box of candy that was poisoned (albeit not fatally). This was adapted from a novel featuring another Rex Stout sleuth (Tecumseh Fox), so the writers could have additional material or elements from which to borrow for a TV adaptation. To match, “This Won’t Kill You” involves Wolfe being dragged to a World Series game 7 at the request of a client, and being charged with solving the poisoning death of a baseball player. This would be complicated and expensive but at least it would give the story a linking theme of poison for easy combination in Europe. Although, the baseball element might not be the best idea.
Our final pair would be “Kill Now, Pay Later”, in which Wolfe helps his bootblack, who has been accused of murder. This would link in with “Counterfeit for Murder”, a story from the same era, in which the cop-hating Hattie Annis (the greatest guest character Rex Stout ever created) storms into the brownstone and in her inimitable way asks Wolfe to help her return a paper bag full of $20 bills to the owner to collect the reward. These have some of the most priceless interactions between Wolfe and another character in the entire Wolfe corpus.
This season would conclude with “Please Pass the Guilt”, a story that would take A Nero Wolfe Mystery into uncharted territory – the 1970s. As I’m imagining one more season for A Nero Wolfe Mystery rather than several, I think this is a good story to end on. It’s a solid tale and it features some moments of Archie wondering about his and Wolfe’s relevance to a more modern world. It’d be good stuff and a nice note to close on.
In my ideal Season Three for A Nero Wolfe Mystery, the series would have gone from strength to strength, building on the success of the first two seasons while taking Nero Wolfe to places that were new and unfamiliar to most viewers.
Of course, there are so many more Nero Wolfe stories that could have been told. Stories like “Death of a Demon” or “Bullet for One”, or the novels The Final Deduction or Murder by the Book. Others might have their own ideas for what should have gone in to Season 3. What remains without question is that when A Nero Wolfe Mystery was cancelled, there was a lot of great television that was never made and which we’ll never see.
However, we can always imagine.