Category: Book Review

Book Review: Trouble in Triplicate

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

With that said, below are the stories:

Before I Die: In two prior novellas set during World War II, particularly in “Booby Trap,” Archie made a point of Wolfe’s kitchen being free of black market goods. Wolfe was extremely patriotic during the war.

By the time 1947 came around, the war was over but the meat shortages were still going on as the U.S. was trying to feed war-torn Europe. Wolfe had about had it. His hunger for some black market meat leads him to take on a job for a notorious mobster who might help him score some meat.  The mobster had hired a convict from Salt Lake City to pretend to be his daughter in order to protect his real daughter from his rivals. But the fake daughter commences to blackmail him and wants Wolfe to make it stop.

Before Wolfe can do that, Archie is present for the murder of the faux daughter and the mobster.  Wolfe has landed he and Archie in a tight spot. Will Wolfe uncover the identity of the true killer or will his appetite finally be the death of he and Archie?

The characters in the short story are fantastic, particularly the mob boss. With three on-screen shootings in the story, it has more action than the average Nero Wolfe story. “Before I Die” is also fun because Stout manages to take Wolfe out of his comfort zone as he deals with New York mafiosos, but still manages to handle himself surprising well.

Overall I give the story:

Rating: Very Satisfactory

“Help Wanted, Male”

In this last war-time Nero Wolfe story, a man comes to Wolfe for help when someone sends him a letter threatening murder. Wolfe provides his stock response and refuses the case advising him that there’s little that can be done to prevent a murder and suggests he tries hiring someone else.

When the man is murdered, Cramer questions him and Wolfe informs Cramer that he is, “not interested, not involved, and not curious.” However, this all changes when Wolfe receives a letter identical to the one sent to the murdered man.

Archie leaves for Washington on Army business, when he returns to New York, he finds that Wolfe has hired a king-sized decoy at $100 a day until Wolfe is able to identify the real killer.

The story is well-executed a nice variation on the Wolfe formula. If you’ve not seen the TV episode, the identity of the murderer is a great twist as well.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

“Instead of Evidence”: A partner in a novelty company comes to Wolfe convinced that his business partner’s going to kill him. He doesn’t Wolfe to prevent the murder, only to catch the murderer. Wolfe balks at the paltry $5000 offered to him as the bulk of it will be taken by taxes. However, he offers to report what the man has told him to  the police and take whatever action he deems appropriate.

The man is murdered by a potent exploding cigar  and Wolfe reports his visit to the police.  Dealing with people in the novelty industry allows Stout’s humor to run wild as the murder victim’s partner manages to chase Wolfe out of his own office. As usual, Archie is frustrated with the pace of Wolfe’s investigation. But don’t worry, this is one story that ends with a bang.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

Overall collection rating: Very Satisfactory

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

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Book Review: Black Coffee

When ITV announced the final series of Poirot episode, I was surprised that ITV opted to film the Labours of Hercules, a collection of short stories, rather than the Hercule Poirot play, Black Coffee. I remain skeptical of their ability to adapt a series of adventure into a single two hour movie. I was also curious why they passed on Black Coffee, as a play would seem ideal for a TV adaptation.

When I learned of the decision, I decided to get hold of the audiobook copy of Black Coffee. The play was adapted to a novel by Australia Author Charles Osborne and this book was read by John Moffatt who has played Poirot in BBC Radio 4’s adaptations of Christie’s novels.

In Black Coffee, Poirot is summoned to collect a top secret formula by Sir Claud Amory. Poirot and Captain Hastings arrive to find Amory murdered, the formula missing,  and a room full of suspects.

Listening to the book, it became apparent that Black Coffee was the type of play that’s easily performed by community playhouses. The plot is relatively simple with most of the action, so to speak, consigned to one room. It featured typical stage dialogue and action, even within the confinds of the novel.

The audiobook was entertaining, thanks  to the performance of Moffat, who brought each character to life with a solid performance that made the audiobook practically a one man play. The book itself was okay. Osborne stuck very closely to Christie’s play adding next to nothing other than transcribing the stage directions and adding a somewhat unnecessary scene that introduces Poirot. 

Reading Black Coffee makes apparent why ITV chose not to adapt the play. ITV’s Poirot is famous not only for David Suchet’s definitive portrayal as the great detective but for the fantastic cinematography. While Black Coffee may make more for an entertaining night at the playhouse, it’d be downright claustraphobic compared to the rest of the Poirot series.

The novel is good mainly if you want to enjoy a Poirot mystery and can’t get to the playhouse to see it. It’s a servicable if not inspired adaptation.

Rating: 3.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: D.R.T.

This week, we take a look at a more modern detective novel, that’s actually set in my backyard, the Treasure Valley.

In D.R.T. (Dead Right There)  by Ray Ellis, a serial killer targets registered sex offenders living in the Treasure Valley.  The killer has a list of victims and a deadline to get his killing done.  Detective Nate Richards is assigned to the case and when he and his partner thwart the killer’s first attempt on the only female on the list, the killer becomes desperate to finish the job and the list.

Ellis is a police veteran and gives D.R.T. a sense of authenticity. At the same time, D.R.T. is a well-crafted and suspenseful story. While, the identity of the killer is revealed early, Ellis introduces two other characters that kept me guessing as to what their role in this is.

The nature of the crimes at the heart of DRT are emotionally charged as we’re dealing with the perpetrators of horrendous crimes against children. Ellis avoids extremes and handles this aspect of the story with great sensitivity.

In addition to the crime story, Richards personal life provides a well-developed subplot as he deals with the return of his love interest from the first novel after a year and a half of her not contacting him.

Overall, the novel is a well-done and suspenseful story that captures both the ups and downs of a policeman’s life, but also the attention of readers.

Rating: 4.5 stars

D.R.T.  is available as an ebook in Amazon Kindle Store and also for the Nook. The book is published by Stonehouse Ink.

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Book Review: Too Many Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Satisfactory

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

Book Review: 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: 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: 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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