Category: Book Review

Book Review: The Silent Speaker

I hadn’t planned on getting into Nero Wolfe novels that had been adapted to TV until after finishing the novels that weren’t adapted (except for A Family Affair) and the novella collections. However, the Silent Speaker was included in the library edition of Black Orchids, so I thought to go ahead and enjoy the bonus.

The Silent Speaker starts is set in the aftermath of the World War II. The head of the federal Bureau of Price Regulation was bludgeoned to death just before he was scheduled to address the National Industrial Association, a group that bore him ill-will. Suspicion falls upon the NIA as culprits.

 

With Wolfe’s banking balance suffering, Archie undertakes “Operation Payroll” to ensure that all of Wolfe’s employees (including him) get paid, Archie cleverly horns in on the case after clearing it with Inspector Cramer and the FBI, neither of which are getting anywhere. So Wolfe is hired by the NIA to solve the case, which centers on a case of missing Dictaphone cylinders.

Wolfe is able to interview all the principle players in the case in a group interview, except for the dead man’s secretary: a beautiful and extremely intelligent woman.  After Wolfe interviews her individually, he issues an unusual injunction to Archie. Archie’s not to see the woman unless Wolfe order him to. Wolfe warns, “A woman who is not a fool is dangerous.” Someone else agrees as she becomes the murderer’s second victim when she’s found dead outside the second gathering of the witnesses and suspects.

The case is fantastically written with plenty of red herrings. It all comes down to a search for ten transcription cylinders that disappeared on the night of the murder and finally just one. And Wolfe and Archie are initially duped by a very clever ruse.

 

This book is notable for many reasons. Wolfe’s relationship with his client has rarely been more complicated, and his relations with Inspector Cramer have never been friendlier. When Cramer is relieved of command, Wolfe has to not only solve the case but to solve in it such a way as to restore Cramer and avoid having Cramer’s pig-headed replacement permanently in charge of Homicide. This leads Wolfe to take some of the most extreme measures of his career to avoid police harassment. And before it’s all over, Archie provides a revelation of its own. All in all, The Silent Speaker is one book that far exceeds the TV version.

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 Orchids

Nero Wolfe had twice as many novels published as Sherlock before he ever broke into short fiction. However, author Rex Stout would create some of his most memorable stories in the Wolfe novellas. The first two of these are collected in Black Orchids.

Black Orchids

The title story for the collection was originally published as Death Wears an Orchid. Archie has found himself assigned to flower show duty to watch a new Black Orchid bred by Lewis Hewitt to see whether it wilts or not. Wolfe finally makes a trip down in person to see it. But then fate takes a hand when Archie triggers the murder when he picks up a stick, triggering a Rube Goldberg style murder, which is the least practical part of the story.

The stick that served as the trigger belonged to Hewitt. Wolfe offers to solve the case and protect Hewitt in exchange for all three of the black orchid plants, insisting on them in advance.

To hold on to his plants, Wolfe has to not only sift through blackmail and jealousies of orchid growers, but he has to endure not one, but two women living under his roof, all while keeping his client’s name out of the press. Wolfe has a clever and somewhat shocking way of doing this that makes for a great twist ending.

Rating: Satisfactory

Cordially Invited to Meet Death

New York’s Premier party planner, Beth Huddleston, engages Wolfe to stop malicious letters that are threatening to ruin her business.  Wolfe has her entire household under suspicion and sends Archie out to investigate. Archie finds a virtual mad house with a Chimp that blocks his way in unless he plays tag with him as well as bears roaming around. Their investigation is cut short when Huddleston dies of a tetanus infection with Wolfe only having learned one key thing: the secret to preparing great Corned Beef hash which Wolfe achieved through a precedent-breaking decision to  allow a woman suspect into the kitchen to help him.

However, her brother is convinced its murder. When Archie and the brother both get the same idea and proof is found that the death was no accident, Wolfe has little reason to be engaged as he has no client. However, when Cramer insults Wolfe by taking a dinner guest downtown for questioning, Wolfe not only resolves to solve the case. He plans to rub Cramer’s face in it.

Within the story, Archie offers a mystery as to why Wolfe sent some of the rare black orchids to Huddleston’s funeral and never answers the question. The question is left open though Archie offers readers their choice of potential theories. Archie confesses there may even have been some past association between Wolfe and Beth Huddleston, but that much of Wolfe’s past remains a mystery to him.  And the puzzle of the black orchids only adds to Wolfe’s mystery.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

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: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes continues to be incredibly popular to this day. It’s near the top of the free download list on Kindle. The Librivox Audiobook version has been downloaded 1 million times on Archive.org.

The book remains the most popular literature featuring the great detective beating all the novels and other collections handily. It contains 12 classic stories:

1. A Scandal in Bohemia
2. The Red-Headed League
3. A Case of Identity
4. The Boscombe Valley Mystery
5. The Five Orange Pips
6. The Man with the Twisted Lip
7. The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
8. The Adventure of the Speckled Band
9. The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb
10. The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor
11. The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet
12. The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

Other than the unsatisfactory ending to, “A Case of Identity” each story is a true gem. They all have this wonderful mix of exciting action, clear-headed deduction, with sensational situations occurring frequently.

If you’ve never read the collection and you’ve only seen or heard adaptations of the story, perhaps the greatest benefit to be derived from reading the book is that most adaptations take stories from all the collections. What you get when you read these stories in the order they were published is how fresh and exciting the Holmes story and character was. There had never been anything quite like it and its clear in this collection that Doyle was still enjoying the character. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes represents Holmes and Doyle at their prime. I found myself imagining what it might be like to pick up a copy of the book or be reading the original stories in the magazine if you’d never read a detective story before or if all you’d was Edgar Allen Poe’s C Auguste Dupin. How exciting it must have been for the first readers to encounter Sherlock Holmes.

Of course, even 120 years after the collection was published in 1892, Doyle’s masterwork stands well against any modern competitor in fascinating its readers.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 Stars.

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Book Review: The Black Mountain

Having firmly established the rules of Nero Wolfe’s first few books, Rex Stout felt free to force Wolfe to bend or break some of his rules.  Other than In the Best Families, Stout never forced Wolfe to break so many rules as he did in The Black Mountain.

Wolfe’s lifelong friend Marco Vukcic is killed and Wolfe leaves the Brownstone in a cab to pay a visit the crime scene and goes to question witnesses. Then, tracing Marco’s murder to his support of Montenegrin rebels opposing the Yugoslav Government under Tito, he and Archie  fly to Italy and cross the Adriatic an old boat and begin a hike to the place o f Wolfe’s birth under assumed names with no passports. Archie doesn’t speak any of the languages, so he has to rely on Wolfe’s translations to even let us know what is being said.

This is definitely not the typical Nero Wolfe story, which is what some people don’t like about it. However, I thought this story worked very well. It was thought provoking in many ways, not the least of which was how much of Wolfe’s eccentricity was put on as he abandons many of them in order to complete this mission to track down Vukcic’s killer. We also have a few hints of what Wolfe’s life was like before he departed for America.  Stout as he does in countless novels, breathes life into his setting.

Stout’s Yugoslavia is a Cold War backwater where you don’t know quite who to trust and the oppression of the Communists has cowed the Montenegrin people, a fact that clearly pains Wolfe.  The story is filled with intrigue and espionage on multiple levels.

The story does lack the same level of influence for Archie. There’s no girl for Archie to chase  as he can’t understand one word of the languages, thwarting any romantic inquiries.  Archie also gets little chance to mouth off to authority except in the first few chapters which are set in New York.

However, this is one novel where the spotlight is rightly on Nero Wolfe, who shines. The story encounters Wolfe dealing with his most personal loss. Wolfe, ever the master of words, uses action instead to show his feelings about Marco as he travels half way around the world to bring Marco’s killer to justice. Of course, words come in handy when, in the face of the lawlessness dominating his homeland, he decides to get killer back to the United States trial without extradition. To achieve this, he has to create one of his most elaborate and risky rouses he’s ever undertaken. And even then, the action doesn’t let up until the final page.

Overall, one of the best I’ve read yet.

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 Secret of Father Brown

Have you wondered how the great detectives solved their cases? In The Secret of Father Brown, while visiting Flambeau’s house Father Brown meets a curious American who has to know as some of his countrymen think Father Brown is using mystical powers. Father Brown offers his explanation:

“You see, I had murdered them all myself,” explained Father Brown
patiently. “So, of course, I knew how it was done.”

Grandison Chace had risen to his great height like a man lifted to the ceiling by a sort of slow explosion. Staring down at the other he
repeated his incredulous question.

“I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully,” went on Father Brown, “I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”

Even after further explanation, the American still doesn’t quite get it, so Father Brown introduces the stories as case studies in his method.

The eight mysteries that followed are asolid group. While, I don’t think the cases rise to the level of the brilliance of the Incredulity of Father Brown, there’s not a bad story in the lot.  Probably the weakest stories in the volume  are The Song of the Flying Fish and The Red Moon of Meru and that’s only because they seem similar similar to other attempted theft stories in other volumes.

Three of the cases were chosen for adaptation in the 1970s Father Brown TV series and are probably the best cases in the book:

“The Mirror of the Magistrate” finds Father Brown insisting that a revolutionary poet is innocent of murdering a judge. Father Brown’s ability to see the events from the poet’s perspective helps him avoid the assumptions the police fall into.

“The Man with Two Beards” finds police searching for a famous jewel thief who has emerged to rob again. He’s apparently killed while committing another robbery, but is that what really happened?  Father Brown probably faces one of his most clever and surprising adversaries in this case.

“The Actor and the Alibi” tells the story of a theatre owner being murdered where everyone seems to have an alibi. This is a case where nothing is what it seems and Father Brown has to see through  a clever rouse.

In addition to this there are a couple other noteworthy stories: “The Vanishing of the Vaudrey” is perhaps the darkest Father Brown tale I’ve read yet, while “The Chief Mourner of Marne” is one of the more profound. A man has secluded himself and is in mourning. Rumor has it that Catholic monks have forced him to do it due to a duel he fought with his brother. Father Brown seeks to uncover the truth and clear the Church of scurrilousness charges. Along the way, the story provides enormous food for thought on forgiveness.

Overall, this is a great collection with eight mysteries that will appeal strongly to any Father Brown fan and also showcases some interesting developments and growth in Chesterton’s philosophy.

Rating: 4.75 Stars out of 5.0

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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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