Category: Book Review

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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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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Father Brown’s Not Buying It: A Review of the Incredulity of Father Brown

Twelve years after his second Father Brown books, G.K. Chesterton brought readers a new collection in 1926 entitled, The Incredulity of Father Brown.

While the previous collections titled, The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown had very little with the theme of the stories, Incredulity is a key theme of each story in this collection.

In each story, an event happens to which a miraculous supernatural explanation is offered. Father Brown by and by doesn’t buy into the supernatural solution, but finds a natural, but often amazing solution to the case. Of course, in each case, the people expect Father Brown to go along with a supernatural solution as he’s a priest and all. However, the book makes the point that being religious and being given superstition are not the same thing.

In “The Curse of the Golden Cross,” Brown explains his believe in “common sense as he understands it:

It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing–room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

Father Brown applies such incisive common sense to eight problems, with all but one of them involving murder. One thing that makes these stories different is that the goal of the story is not catching the murderer. In the vast majority of cases, the suspect is not caught. The story is about the puzzle and how Father Brown solves it. In one case, “The Oracle of the Dog,” Brown stays one hundred miles away from the scene of the crime and solves it secondhand.

The best story in the book was, “The Arrow of Heaven” which involves the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire in a high tower with an arrow when it was impossible for anyone to be able to shoot it that distance.

“The Miracle of the Moon Crescent” is a fascinating story that has three religious skeptics contemptuously dismiss Father Brown but they begin to think a supernatural cause may be involved in the seemingly impossible murder of a millionaire when the police fail to turn up any satisfactory solution.

“The Doom of the Darnaways”  may be one of the most profound stories in the collection. Father Brown encounters a young man whose family is said to be subject to a curse that leads inevitably to murder and suicide. An expert on genetics declares the curse is nonsense, but that heredity indicates the same type of fate. Here Chesterton illustrated that it’s possible for both superstition and science to develop a fatalism about human life and destiny that excludes free and leads people to helplessness and despair. The story has a well-told murder mystery, though I don’t know why Father Brown put off the solution.

There’s not really a story I didn’t like in the collection, although I do think, “Oracle of the Dog” may have a little too much literary criticism and not enough story. Also, some of Chesterton’s rough edges and lack of racial sensitivity are present in this collection. However, if you can get past that, The Incredulity of Father Brown is a truly wonderful collection of stories about the original clerical detective.

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

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A Review of the Columbo Collection

[This was originally slated to be posted on July 9th but was moved to today due to the passing of the great Peter Falk. You may also enjoy our look at the top 10 1970s Columbo episodes in parts one, two, and three ]

It’s been nearly eight and a half years since the last Columbo movie and with star Peter Falk’s health issues assured there would be no sequel. Now Falk’s death may have some folks wanting a little bit more Columbo.

Creator William Link, has returned to working on Columbo sans Peter Falk, writing a play, Columbo Takes the Rap. Last year, Link released The Columbo Collection, the first ever compilation of Columbo short stories, featuring twelve Columbo adventures.

The Columbo Collection is a must for any fan of the series. Usually, writing these sort of volumes falls to people who are not really associated with the series or whose affiliation is loose, and they can’t get the character accurate. Link brings credibility to the stories and gets Columbo pretty close to right.

To truly enjoy the book, your expectations have to be properly set.  Reading the stories is not going to come close to replaciating the fun of watching Columbo on television or the depth of the stories.  Each story is between 15-26 pages long. Some of the preludes to the murder in TV episodes would take longer than that to tell.

Columbo’s unique structure doesn’t lend itself well to these sort of limitations, so it’s no surprise that the book is a mixed bag.

On the positive side, as a master of mystery, Link created several memorable gems, some of which approached the level of being lik e a mini-Columbo episode (imagine Columbo as a half hour TV show):

“The Criminal Criminal Defense Attorney”- A lawyer gets his client acquitted of  rape and then kills him. This story does a good job portraying the mental duel between Columbo and the attorney, and the final clue is classic Columbo. Also, a high powered defense attorney is perhaps the closest any of the stories come to Columbo’s usual battle against an elitest.  The only weak spot of this story is that the motive is hard to believe.

“The Blackest Mail”-The longest story in the book  and well-worth the read. An actress murders a man who is trying to blackmail her by trying to make it look like self-defense. Now she has to evade Columbo. This one did a great job with the cat and mouse chase.

“Trance”-In several stories, Link doesn’t show us the murder, but it’s clear from the beginning who Columbo thinks is “the guy” (to quote Monk.) Such as is the case with “Trance” as we know from the beginning that Columbo’s suspicion lies firmly on a hypnotist that has an airtight alibi. The way that Columbo breaks the alibi is classic. Unfortunately, the way Columbo puts the murderer at the scene of the crime is not credible.

“Murder Allegro”-Another where we don’t see the murder, but are relying on Columbo who is sure that a musician murdered his wife, who was also part of the band. This one is not only a howcatchem but a howdidit. On both points, this story works.

“Photo Finish”-This story was unique in staying in the viewpoint of the murderer from start to finish as she plots the murder of her philandering husband. This character has a very distinct voice as a woman scorned out for revenge at all costs and annoyed by her amateur mistakes in the murder game. Unfortunatley for her, Columbo basically walks into the solution.

Opposite the table of contents, The Columbo Collection also features a very nice sketch of Columbo drawn by Peter Falk.  Link also writes an introduction to his piece that contains much the same information as he’s posted on his website but had a couple interesting added details.

One was about Bert Freed, who was the first actor to play Columbo as the first Columbo telepay was an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show. Link ran into Freed and found out that Freed had forgotten he’d ever played Columbo. Freed had want Link called actor’s amnesia, and it’s easy to forget one role on a forgotten TV show dcades before.  I found it amusing that if Freed had somehow landed on Celebrity Jeopardy, he would missed the question, “The first actor to play Columbo.”

On the negative side,  the story Grief was the weakest of the lot. Everything about the story was tedious. And the story was made worse when Columbo tried to mitigate one elderly man running over another, because the driver thought the pedestrian had committed a hit and run on his dog.

Most of the other stories that aren’t listed above are forgettable, with weak plots, weak conclusions, or weak characters. They don’t possess all of these problems, but they’re seriously handicapped by the short story format and trying to have Columbo have a battle of wits and solve a case in 20 pages.

Also, in many of these stories, Link does a poor job choosing his villains. Part of the appeal of Columbo is the every man again battling the rich, famous, and powerful. Putting Columbo up against other everymen as Link does when he puts Columbo against a Gardener-War Veteran, another cop of about equal rank, a retiree, and a man who lost his girlfriend to a would-be-assassn’s ricochet does just that. Of course, that would be realistic, but Columbo has never been about realism.

The first five stories contain motives buried in psychobabble that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Thankfully, Link proceeds to a pattern of using more traditional motives like jealousy, greed, and revenge which work  far better in short story form.

One hopeful sign is that these stories do appear to be published in the order  in which Link wrote them and the last few attempts are far more refined, with the last three stories all making my list of the gems in the book., which means if he opts to do another Columbo collection, he may be in better form.

Personally, I would probably have much preferred a collection of three or four Columbo novellas which would have provided more time for the format to work.  Still, it was a worthy read, particularly for fans that miss that rumpled rain coat.

Rating:Three Stars out of Five.

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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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The Man Who Asked, “Why Me?”

A good autobiography requires a truly interesting life and a willingness to share it. By both accounts, William Gargan’s, 1969 memoir Why Me is a masterful example of how an autobiography ought to be written.

I knew Gargan for his TV and radio detective work with I Deal in Crime, Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator, and Martin Kane, Private Eye. The Martin Kane series was Gargan’s best known role. Along with Ralph Bellamy’s Man Against Crime, it was one of the first successful TV private eye shows, enjoyed by fans if for nothing else than the novelty of doing a live TV detective series.

However, Gargan’s life was a lot more than TV and radio glitz.  Gargan’s acting career included stage work in the 1920s and movies in the 1930s and 1940s. Gargan’s varied life included  assisting his bookie father when he was a kid, being thrown out of high school, working as a store investigator/collector and a private detective, and being a bootlegger during prohibition.

In Why Me, Gargan shares inside stories in Hollywood: How his best-supporting actor Oscar  nomination for They Knew What They Wanted came out of a frustrating shooting experience with the hammy Charles Laughton. He tells a more fond story of actor hammyness when he and John Barrymore staged an epic battle with Lionel Barrymore to stop Barrymore from stealing a scene. You’ll also run into fun stories about James J. Corbett, Leslie Howard, Bing Crosby,  John F. Kennedy, and others.

Gargan’s life included meeting both famous and infamous people, some thanks to his father’s connections.  Gargan tells the story of a man operating a protection racket in Chicago who was shaking him down for $10 a week. He called his father. One of his dad’s friends contacted him about it. A friend by the name of Al Capone.  Gargan was never bothered after that, but did worry about what had happened to the wildcat shakedown artist.

Gargan knew there was a “dark side” to his father’s life and underworld connections, however in his youth, Gargan was mostly shielded from that side and had mostly fond memories of his father and mother. Gargan was endowed with an incredible love of family and zest for life. One of my favorite stories was about his mother’s funeral. The funeral director told him they planned a slow procession from the church to the cemetary. Gargan rejected the idea of a slow mournful procession, telling the undertaker, “She was a spirited woman. Go like hell.”

Gargan wrote, “Every morning to this day, I say a prayer for my parents. God love them. I love them.”

Gargan’s life included many ups as he made his way to a comfortable living making a lot of “B movies.”  and television. The title, “Why Me?” references the great turning point in his life. At age 55, while playing a dying ex-president in the stage version of The Best Man, he began to have pain in his throat.  He was diagnosed with cancer of the Larynx, which required surgery that would remove his larynx, silence his voice, and put an end to his acting career. When Gargan was brought home from the hospital, their TV repairman was fixing their set, and turned on the TV, and one of Gargan’s old films came on and he slammed his hand down on the table, wanting to scream to have it turned off, as pain and self-pity overwhelmed him for the moment.

Why Me is not a self-pitying book, rather it tells how Gargan came to answer the question.  It’s Gargan’s story of how he learned to talk again through esophagael speech and then began to work with the American Cancer Society: raising funds, making personal appearances, and helping scared patients as they prepared to go through the same process as Gargan did. It was in this that Gargan found an answer to the question, “Why me?” He’d gotten the cancer, so he could help others.

The book revealed the view that Gargan had taken of cancer as he listed one by one, every friend, and every great person who got lost to cancer. Cancer was an enemy and Gargan and the ACS were at war with it. Gargan, a former two pack-a-day smoker for more than thirty ended the book with an appeal for people to stop smoking cigarettes. Perhaps, the most surprising part of the book for twenty-first century Americans is that Gargan didn’t have any thoughts on how Martin Kane promoted tobacco use. Gargan took personal responsibility stating that even as a teenager, they’d referred to cigarettes as “coffin nails.”

Gargan’s faith also plays a part in the book. While he writes about his involvement with the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and meetings with Pope Pius, the more interesting passages are those that show how his faith grew stronger through tragedy and helps him find new purpose in his 60s.

Mixed with honesty about his falings, and a fascinating life story, Why Me is an inspirational tour de force by Gargan. It is sadly out of print, but I was able to get my copy through an interlibrary loan and used copies are available on Amazon and Half.com.

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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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