As any regular reader of Rex Stout's novels about Nero Wolfe can assure you, it takes a great deal to move the sedentary gourmand out of his brownstone house on West 35th Street in New York City. The prospect of a great meal, however, may do the trick. That is why, in Too Many Cooks, we are treated to the spectacle of Wolfe, assisted by Archie Goodwin, traveling by train - horrors! - to West Virginia, for a banquet prepared by some of the world's finest chefs, Les Quinze Maitres - the fifteen masters.
But Wolfe's dinner plans are interrupted when somebody sticks a knife into one of the chefs, right in the middle of a sort of taste-testing contest. The police believe the culprit is one of Wolfe's friends. So it is partly to clear his friend's name - and also from some ulterior motives of his own - that Wolfe and Goodwin must solve this murder.
First published in 1938, Too Many Cooks was the fifth book to feature Wolfe and Goodwin, and it is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here. Nero Wolfe, taken outside his comfort zone (quite literally), is fascinating as he grumbles his way to a surprising solution. I think this is one of the best of the early Wolfe books, and I recommend it highly.
As part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for one book that features food/cooks in some way. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.
A Sad Song Singing (1963) is fairly straightforward. Cresentia Fanio seeks out the help of Mac, Dewey's world weary private eye based in Chicago, and asks him to locate her missing boyfriend, singer Richie Darden. She claims she's been followed, has managed to lose the men on her tail, and needs Mac's help to hide the suitcase and find Richie soon. He's skeptical about the whole thing, especially about the suitcase Richie has given Cress to watch over. She refuses to open it as she promised Richie she wouldn't. When some thugs burst into his office and Mac manages to beat them off and escape with Cress and her suitcase his mind is pretty much made up. He'll do his best to find Richie and get to the bottom of the mystery of why the thugs want the suitcase so badly.
The detective novel elements are at a minimum here. It's the story of Cress and her complete immersion in the folk singing scene that makes for a fascinating read. Dewey creates a variety of coffeehouse locations from swank carpeted establishments that serve meals and alcohol to the dingiest dive serving only regular coffee and apologies for the broken espresso machine from a leotard wearing waitress while college boys play chess and turtleneck attired beatniks strum their guitars on a wobbly wooden stage. The atmosphere feels oddly old-fashioned, almost cliche and yet wholly authentic. Dewey even dreams up a few folk songs with haunting lyrics. You can practically hear the music wafting off the pages. Mac can't help but succumb to the lure of the music and discovers that Cress herself has an unmined talent for singing just waiting to be unleashed on a welcome audience.
Mac is not your typical private eye. Sure he's great in a fistfight and though he carries a gun with a legal license he's reluctant to pull the trigger. This case that forces him on a road trip through the folk singing world with a teenage girl also puts him in the role of surrogate father. We see a tender side to him as he comes to care for her not only as his client but as a lost girl too much in love with a fantasy. At one point he seems utterly lost himself. No longer able to reach her with his compassionate talk, yet knowing he needs to convince her that Darden's disappearance may have very dangerous consequences for he dissolves into frustrated silence. His lament is summed up in a simple painful sentence: "If only I could sing, I thought."
I read this book at part of Rich Westwood's challenge mentioned earlier this month on his blog Past Offences to read a mystery published in 1963. It also fulfills one more book in my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Silver Age edition.
Reading Challenge update: Silver Bingo card, space V4 - "Book with a professional detective"
Long before Kinsey Millhone, long before V. I. Warshawski, long before all of today's top-rated - and top-read - female P.I.s, there was Miriam Lea.
Miriam Lea, one of the very first woman detectives in fiction. In the Victorian era, when a female detective was pretty well unheard of, Miriam Lea applied for, and accepted, a job with a Mr. Bazalgette, the proprietor of a London-based private detective agency. Her story is told in Mr. Bazalgette's Agent, an 1888 book by Leonard Merrick, and that book is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
1888 was just one year after Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in print, so we are going back quite far in the history of the detective story. Mr. Bazalgette's Agent tells the story of Miriam Lea, a young woman looking for some way to earn a living without having to become, say, a shopkeeper's assistant. She answers an advertisement placed by Mr. Bazalgette, whose detective agency is seeking a woman to act as a private investigator. She is sent out in search of a young man who seems to have absconded with a good deal of the bank's money. Mr. Bazalgette's Agent is the story of her search for that man, a search which takes her first through Europe and, eventually, all the way to South Africa in pursuit of her man. There are a fair number of surprises along the way. It is, I must say, a fairly gentle mystery - no violence, really, and a certain Victorian sensibility. But it is a very enjoyable story, quite worth reading. The British Library has republished this rarity, and they provided a review copy to me.
I am submitting this review as another entry in the My Reader's Block blog Vintage Mystery Bingo Challenge, filling another square on my Golden bingo card that calls for "a book by an author you've never read before."
That’s strike one.
The story has a great plot element about a missing manuscript dating back to the Italian Renaissance. The murder victim, Bruce Lombardi, had been working on translating the text and had discovered all sorts of ties to witchcraft and black magic and the death cult of the Borgias. Does the motive behind the murder have anything to do with this intriguing, possibly dangerous manuscript? No. It’s all incidental background.
That’s strike two.
The book is narrated by Robert Kintyre, professor of Renaissance history and expert on Machiavelli. When his graduate student/teaching assistant is found brutally murdered and bearing wounds that indicate gruesome torture Kintyre turns sleuth and does his best to get to the bottom of the puzzling crime. But in his amateurish imitation of a badass crimefighter he endangers the lives of others and is directly responsible for a second murder that seems gratuitous and senseless even within the confines of this insular academic community. Kintyre keeps thinking he should tell the police what he knows but suffers from the Hamlet syndrome of deliberating and meditating too much on his thoughts and never acting on them. I have no problem telling you that the villains turn out to be involved in a drug operation and the real culprit had hired a bunch of thugs to do all his dirty work. Shades of pulp fiction master criminals? No, instead it’s wholly contrived for the sake of a twist in the final pages.
That's the great opening sentence to Hazell Plays Solomon (1974). The narrative voice of James Hazell only gets better as the story progresses in his debut appearance. True, at first he seems to be one more cookie cutter cynical private eye. He’s an ex-cop, he’s a callous S.O.B., he’s a recovering alcoholic who has to duck into a movie matinee and stuff junk food in his mouth in order to overcome the D.T.s and an urge to down a bottle of whiskey, and he has no qualms about shagging his client if she has a great body, sexy legs, and a couple of choice kneecaps. (Yes, I said kneecaps. For some reason this private eye is obsessed with feminine patellae.) He seems to be the consummate 1970s asshole private eye for much of the book. Yet you can’t help but read on. And the payoff is worth it. For this ultimate jerk undergoes quite a transformation by the final page.
This private eye is way out of his league in his first case. It involves the ultimate horror of all mothers – the careless mix-up of two babies in a maternity ward. The lawyer Hazell is working for has a wealthy client who wants proof that her baby is being raised by a couple living in a council flat (that’s a housing project for us Americans) in one of London’s worst poverty ridden neighborhoods.
The self-deprecating sardonic tone is sometimes witty sometimes crass but never boring. You learn an awful lot of Cockney rhyming slang. So much so that I longed for a glossary at the rear of the book to help me decode much of what was being said by the characters. However, the real success of the book is in the unexpectedly complex women characters. They have a lot to teach Hazell.
The key woman in the plot, however, is Kathleen Drummond. She is remembered by Mrs. Gunning as a cantankerous and drunken maternity nurse in charge of the two mothers six years ago at St. Margaret’s Hospital. When Hazell tracks down Drummond to her hovel of an apartment he finds the former nurse has become a paranoid, delusional wronged woman. In his interview he learns the secret of her supposed alcoholism and her nasty mood swings. Ironically, it is this interview of a broken pathetic woman who could easily have become yet another target for his sardonic humor who first elicits genuine emotion from Hazell. Despite all her pain and all her shame he observes in Kathleen Drummond a powerful presence. “There was something almost ominous about the grim way she held onto her dignity.” He goes on to wonder about how she had been treated all her life, how she had been misunderstood and unfairly labeled by her patients, co-workers, and neighbors and comes to a startling realization. “There in that strange dark room I felt more about another human being than I have ever done, before or since.” This scene redeemed the private eye and makes the book near brilliant.
I will be on the lookout for the other two books in this very brief series. There's no greater reward when a book surprises the reader on multiple levels; there are plenty in store here -- in plot, character, and humor with the ultimate being the metamorphosis of James Hazell from callous wiseguy to fully realized human being. This book comes highly recommended.
James Hazell Private Eye Series
Hazell Plays Solomon (1974)
Hazell and the Three-Card Trick (1975)
Hazell and the Menacing Jester (1976)
Reading Challenge update: Silver Age bingo card – L4: “Book with a Man in the Title”
The young woman standing on the cold stone step had no idea who she was, or where she was. The other young woman, the one at the bottom of the stairs, was dead - murdered. And the young woman on the stairs was trapped in a nightmare world of amnesia. She needed help, and she needed it badly. Fortunately for her...there was Miss Silver.
That 's the situation we face at the very start of Patricia Wentworth's last novel, The Girl in the Cellar, which is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, which you can hear in its entirety by clicking here.
The Girl in the Cellar was published in 1961, the year Patricia Wentworth died, and it is the last of some 32 books to feature Miss Maud Silver, the private enquiry agent whose little-old-lady appearance can be dangerously deceptive to evildoers. Miss Silver began life as a governess, bringing up other people's children. When she retired and became a private investigator, she brought her no-nonsense attitude with her.
I have read a fair number of the Miss Sliver mysteries, and I think The Girl in the Cellar is one of the better ones. Its dramatic opening is remarkably powerful: we are introduced to this young woman standing on the basement steps in a house that may or may not be deserted. She is suffering from amnesia - she cannot even remember her own name, or where she is, or what she is doing there. She only knows that there is the dead body of another woman at the bottom of the steps.
She manages to get out of the house, and she gets onto the first bus passing by. And that's where her luck begins to change, because she runs into Miss Silver, who sees that the young woman obviously is suffering from shock and needs help.
It will take quite a while before the young woman is able to remember who she is and start to make sense out of the things going on around her. And, as that knowledge comes back to her, she will also realize that knowledge can be a very dangerous thing...
A lot of the Miss Silver books strike me as being fairly formulaic - you have the same character-types in book after book. There is usually a Damsel in Distress, there's a Misunderstood Young Man, there are Friends/Relatives Who Should Know Better, and so forth. In this case, however, the peril facing the heroine is pretty unique, and Wentworth really does a fine job in showing us the helpless terror that burdens the amnesia victim. It's not so much a whodunit - it's pretty clear most of the way through the book who the villain is - but the true relationships among the characters, and the identity of the girl in the cellar - of both girls in the cellar - are well concealed and allowed to play out suspensefully. And Miss Silver is a delight, as always.
The Girl in the Cellar is another entry in the Vintage Mystery Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog. As it was published after 1960, I am intering in in the Silver category, "a book by an author you've read before."
Someone has murdered the master - the master chess player, that is. Paul Jerin was playing a dozen games of chess blindfolded, against twelve different opponents simultaneously, when someone gave him a cup of hot chocolate quite liberally laced with poison. As far as the police were concerned, it was a simple case - the only person who could have done it was Matthew Blount, the man who gave Jerin the hot chocolate and who immediately washed out the cup afterwards. Blount's daughter wasn't buying it - and she came to Nero Wolfe to persuade him to find the evidence that would clear her father.
In a nutshell, that's what you'll find in Gambit, by Rex Stout. The 1962 mystery featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
The word "gambit" is a technical term in chess, referring to an opening move by a player in which a pawn or other chess piece is sacrificed to gain a strategic advantage. It becomes a central image in the book, as Nero Wolve and his right-hand assistant, Archie Goodwin, try to determine who killed Paul Jerin and why. They must, of course, come up with an answer that satisfies the police - and they quickly discover that they are working on a case in which they simply haven't a shred of evidence, even after they answer the questions of who and why.
That's all I'll say about the plot - but I will also recommend this story because it has what I think is probably the finest opening scene of any of the Nero Wolfe novels. We are treated to the spectacle of Nero Wolfe, sitting in his office, tearing pages out of the then-new, third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged. The book outraged Wolfe's sense of what he considered to be proper English usage, by, for instance, using "imply" and "infer" interchangeably, and his response is quite visceral. It's a marvelous scene. The book also ends with what Archie calls "one of the best charades Wolfe has ever staged," as he sets up a gambit of his own to catch the killer.
Gambit, unfortunately, appears to be out of print again, although the link above will take you to a version for the Kindle; I also see that Amazon's web of used book dealers seem to have a number of reasonably priced copies. It's worth going to the trouble to get it - it's a clever plot, and if you find yourself arriving, along with Wolfe and Archie, at the correct identity of the killer, you will still face...but why spoil it? I do think you'll enjoy it.
One more thing: Gambit will be my first entry this year in Bev Hankins's newest vintage mystery reading challenge over at the My Reader's Block blog - you can read all about it at the link, but it's a challenge involving matching books to categories. Players can choose "Golden" (pre-1960) or "Silver" (1960-1980) bingo cards. Gambit fits nicely on the Silver card as "a book with a detective team." It's going to be an interesting year.
UPDATED to fix broken link