Telefilm Review: A Nero Wolfe Mystery: Christmas Party

“Christmas Party,” is set in the 1950s. Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton) agrees to create a fake marriage license to allow an enchanting dancing partner to press her boss and hot and cold romantic interest to give her a firm answering on marrying her. She invites Archie to the Christmas party of the design company her boss owns. When his boss, legendary private detective Nero Wolfe gets too pushy in insisting Archie instead drive him to an appointment, Archie to uses the license to make Wolfe believe he’s about to get married and to Wolfe’s horror, bring a woman to live in Wolfe’s house or leave Wolfe’s employ for good.

Things go wrong for Archie when the boss is murdered and the license (which could prove Archie a forger) is missing and could be found by police. It’s only when he arrives home that Archie finds how bad things are and that the honor and dignity of Nero Wolfe are at stake if they don’t solve the murder…and quickly.

This is a bit of an oddity in my Christmas viewing habits. I tend to go for uplifting traditional feel-good Christmas stories. However, “Christmas Party” is in the words of the froggy-voiced victim, “My secret public vice” entertainment-wise as I mention watching it on Twitter nearly every year.

Part of the pleasure is having an excuse to touch base with one of the best TV mystery series ever. I’d argue it’s the last great faithful adaption of old school detective fiction that we’ll ever see. The high points of the series are all present in this episode: There’s the stylish costuming and generally elegant set design that gives the series an authentic feel. There’s the marvelous ensemble cast that make up the bulk of guest characters each week. And there’s the writing that faithfully conveys Stout’s stories with a minimum of tampering.

As for the plot itself, it’s a pretty standard Rex Stout plot. Stout is the master of creating all these little worlds (usually within the realm of New York City) which are civilized on the surface but one homicide away from all the pent up hostility and petty rivalries within the group exploding to the surface. The solution is stylistic and bold, but not particularly brilliant. What makes this story standout is the Wolfe-Goodwin relationship. Despite Archie’s constant ribbing and the way they get on each other’s nerves, it transcends the mere employer-employee relationship. Mentor/mentee and Surrogate Father/Son are certainly fair ways to describe it. This story highlights the hidden warmth of what’s often a tempestuous relationship in a way that’s true of the clever subtlety of Rex Stout, and that aspect does more than anything else to make it fit the season.

There are minor quibbles to be had with it. The portrayal of Lilly Rowan, a semi-important recurring character in the books, as jealous of Archie having a dance partner on another night is far from book-accurate, although it does serve to provide the episode a nice TV original bookend. And of course, the plant rooms appear and reminds fans of the one way the early 2000s series fails in comparison to its much less-regarded 1980s predecessor: in its portrayal of Wolfe’s famous room full of orchids.

This doesn’t detract from its status as a solid entry in the TV show.

Rating: Satisfactory

Note: In a crime against great television, A Nero Wolfe Mystery is not available legally on any streaming service and the DVDs are all out of print. However, the series is worth seeking out however you can find it whether through your local library, an eBay auction, or fan-posted YouTube video.

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