This week, we begin a look at the very best of Rex Stout’s 39 Nero Wolfe novellas. Note, the 33 Novels will be covered at a later date. We’re only counting down the most memorable short stories featuring one of fiction’s greatest detectives.
10) Murder is No Joke (1958): A woman comes to Wolfe’s office concerned that her brother’s business is being destroyed by a woman who has some hold over her. She wants Wolfe to investigate her but doesn’t have the money to pay him. However, she offers to pay Wolfe to call the woman. Wolfe dials the number and is promptly insulted by the woman and then hears sounds that indicates violence has occurred. Archie calls the woman’s office and finds she has indeed been murdered with Wolfe and Archie as likely ear witnesses.
However, Wolfe has a sense that someone is trying to make a fool of him and sets out to uncover the truth of what really happened and how the suicide of a formerly promising actress plays into what happened. He sends Archie down to the office where the murdered woman worked to ask about correspondence from the actress who committed suicide.
The highlight of this story is when Archie wants to know why Wolfe is an investigating and Wolfe and Archie share a moment of detective zen when Wolfe opens Archie’s eyes to a key clue. All in all, the story has a good cast of characters and a solution that really shocked me.
9) Bitter End (1940): This was a reworking of Bad for Business, a novel for Rex Stout’s other Detective Tecumseh Fox. It was necessitated by Stout’s desire to make some money before he put all of his energy into fighting against Nazi Germany. It was published in a magazine in 1940, but not actually published in book form until ten years after Stout’s death.
I read the original novel but that’s hardly necessary. The reworking here is seamless. The plot begins when Wolfe gets a spiked candy from Tingley’s Tidbits. While the poison’s not deadly, it’s bitter and this is enough to get Wolfe on the warpath and make him more than willing to help the niece of the hated CEO of Tingley’s. Of course, the case takes on a whole new complexity when the CEO is murdered and the niece finds herself unconscious at the scence of the crime. The story is one of the best in the corpus and Archie really shines.
8) Christmas Party (1957) Archie connives to get a fake wedding license for a dancing partner who wants her to boss to marry her. The boss is being stubborn so Archie gets a fake marriage license blank with both their names on it to force the issue.
When Wolfe starts to get bossy and unreasonable in demanding Archie drive him to meet an orchid expert, Archie springs the marriage license on and tells him that he’s getting married. Wolfe is displeased but Archie gets out of the errand.
Archie ends up attending the Christmas Party where the boss is murdered and Santa mysteriously disappears after the crime is committed. Archie also can’t find the fake wedding license which has him at risk of a forgery charge. When Archie gets home he finds out that Santa was none other than Nero Wolfe, spying on him and his supposed fiancée. To make matters worse, a jealous young woman who believes Archie’s Faux fiancee was the murderess demands that Wolfe connive to help frame her. Otherwise, Wolfe will have to endure the embarrassment of being exposed as Santa. Wolfe and Archie are in a pickle and it takes all of Wolfe’s wits to get them out.
7) Instead of Evidence (1946) 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.
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