Feb 262015

As I look back on the books I’ve reviewed over the past nearly-eight years on the Classic Mysteries podcast, I find, according to the Backlist page, that I have reviewed more than 20 of Rex Stout’s books, most of them featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Over at the Wolfe Pack’s group page on Facebook this week, there has been some discussion about which Nero Wolfe books are personal favorites. I must admit that my favorite still is The Doorbell Rang, written in 1965, at a time when there was still an air of “The Untouchables” around the FBI and its leader, J. Edgar Hoover. Some disillusionment was beginning to set in, however – and nowhere is that more clear than in The Doorbell Rang.

My podcast review, written before this blog was in place, summarized the book this way:

Here’s the situation: a very wealthy woman comes to Wolfe’s office on West 35th Street in New York. She has read an unflattering book about the FBI, and has bought ten thousand copies of it and sent them to friends, government officials, and others whom she believed should read the book. As a result, she says, she has been harassed by the FBI. She believes they have tapped her telephone, spied on her movements, and generally made her life miserable. She wants to hire Wolfe to stop the FBI.

It takes some persuading. Neither Wolfe nor his assistant, Archie Goodwin, is a fool. They know that if they do get involved, the FBI will shift its harassment to them. They could wind up losing their licenses as private detectives.

But Wolfe’s ego – and Archie’s too – make them accept the case, even though Wolfe doesn’t have any immediate answer to the question: how do you persuade the entire FBI organization – not to mention its boss – to stop doing what they won’t even admit they are doing…

And so battle is joined. Wolfe comes up with a plan, all right, and it’s one of the most delightful, daring and ingenious charades he has ever created. Along the way to finding an answer to his problem, he solves a murder which the New York City police have, in effect, been told by the FBI not to solve. It’s not often that Wolfe finds his old nemesis, New York City homicide detective Inspector Cramer, cheering him on…but that’s one of the many odd developments in this case.

It required a fair amount of courage for Rex Stout to write this one. It’s by no means typical of the rest of Nero Wolfe’s cases, most of which are great murder mysteries. In this one, the murder is secondary to the battle between Nero Wolfe and the FBI – and what a marvelous solution it is.

And this book has one of the best closing lines of any of Rex Stout’s books…

If you haven’t read this one yet, go get it and enjoy it. 

Feb 222015

It was only because of a trick that Nero Wolfe was persuaded to get involved in the case of Molly Lauck. That unfortunate young woman, a fashion model, had made the mistake of opening a brown box of candy and taking a piece – a piece which turned out to have been laced with cyanide. The police really had nothing to go on. But a young man named Llewellyn Frost managed to get a number of prominent orchid growers to sign a letter begging Nero Wolfe to get involved in the case. And so he did. And he discovered that in addition to that brown box of deadly chocolate, the case would hinge on another box – a mysterious – and missing – red box, whose contents, although still unknown, could move someone to murder. It happens in The Red Box, by Rex Stout, originally published in 1937 and only the fourth recorded case for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The Red Box is the subject of today’s audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.

It doesn’t take Wolfe long to begin to suspect that the wrong victim may have died by eating that poisoned candy. For that matter, it really doesn’t take him long to determine the probable culprit – but there is, as he says repeatedly, no proof. There will be more deaths before Wolfe (with the active help, for once, of Inspector Cramer of Homicide) stages one of his most daring office confrontation scenes in order to solve the mystery of the red box and its contents.

As always, the story is narrated by the irrepressible Archie Goodwin, which guarantees a fast, funny delivery, full of wisecracks, with plenty of first rate quotes from Nero Wolfe as well, who is, as always, irascible and sharp. At one point, for example, while talking to a wealthy client, he observes, “Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth.” Stout really was a marvelous writer; I don’t think most readers would put up with Wolfe’s mammoth ego for very long if it weren’t for Archie’s narration.

At the moment, The Red Box appears to be in print as part of a paperback collection which also contains Stout’s The Rubber Band. It’s also available in e-book format. It is very much worth your reading time.

The 2015 Bingo Challenge

This week, we’re back to another entry in the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge being presented by Bev Hankins at her marvelous “My Reader’s Block” blog. The Bingo card has 36 squares to be filled by reading a book appropriate to each square’s instructions. The Red Box is my entry for the first square – top row, left-hand column ‘ calling for a color in the title or cover color.

Vintage Golden Card 2015

Sep 072014

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.

The Challenge

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.

Jan 272014

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

Dec 072013

The annual Black Orchid Weekend of the Wolfe Pack in New York City is well under way. It began last night with a book discussion of the novella “Murder is Corny” from the collection Three Witnesses, accompanied by a first rate dinner at Playwright’s Tavern. We also viewed the A&E production adapted from “Murder is Corny,” starring Maury Chaikin as Nero Wolfe and Tim Hutton as Archie Goodwin – a production which, we all pretty much agreed, was superior to the original novella. That excellent TV series is sorely missed today.

Tonight (Saturday night) will be the 36th annual Black Orchid Banquet, preceded this afternoon by “The Assembly,” a gathering where Wolfeian scholars and members of Rex Stout’s family gather to discuss various Wolfe-related subjects. At tonight’s dinner, the featured speaker will be Robert Goldsborough, the author of several “continuations” of Nero Wolfe novels, including the very good prequel to the series, called Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. These events are usually great fun, and a fine excuse to break out the formal evening wear.

At the banquet, the annual Nero Award for the best American mystery fiction will be presented, along with the Black Orchid Novella Award, given in conjunction with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I hope to see at least some of you there.

The weekend concludes on Sunday with a brunch – just another chance for the group to sit around and talk with each other. If you didn’t make this year’s events…start planning for 2014 – the first full weekend of December.

Sep 172013

Hattie Annis, Nero Wolfe’s client in “Counterfeit for Murder,” one of the novellas in Homicide Trinity, is a fascinating character. As I mentioned in my review of that book, Hattie Annis narrowly escapes with her life when somebody tries to run her down with a stolen car.

She’s lucky. In the original version of the story, Rex Stout actually had allowed Hattie Annis to die under the wheels of that hit-and-run car; by the seventh page of the story, she was out of it. According to John J. McAleer, Stout’s biographer, while it was very unusual for Rex Stout to rewrite at all, that first version of the story really was inferior to the final version – largely because of the fascinating character of Hattie Annis. That first version was published after Stout’s death as “Assault on a Brownstone,” which appeared in the collection Death Times Three, along with McAleer’s introduction.

All of which leaves open the question of why Rex Stout chose to rewrite this story. McAleer says he asked the author, but Stout replied, “There must be a reason, but I have forgotten what it was.” Most of us who have read both versions are just grateful that he did change it.

Sep 162013

Long-time readers of Rex Stout’s books about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin will understand that there are some things one simply does not do in Wolfe’s New York City brownstone. One does not, for example, use the words “imply” and “infer” interchangeably, nor should you use “contact” as a verb. Add to that list: murder. It is definitely not a good idea to walk into Wolfe’s office and murder someone, especially not by strangling them with a tie Wolfe himself had worn and left on his desk. That is likely to upset Mr. Wolfe. And he is very likely to soothe his outraged ego by hunting you down.

And that is what happens in “Eeny Meeny Murder Mo,” the first of three nicely polished gems in Homicide Trinity, a trio of Stout novellas originally published in 1963, and the subject of today’s audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, which you may listen to by clicking here. “Nicely polished” indeed. Nero Wolfe, having spilled some sauce from his lunch on his tie, removes it and leaves it on his desk. While he is upstairs for his afternoon session with his orchids, Archie Goodwin admits a young woman to the office; she wants to see Wolfe and won’t take “no” for an answer. So Archie goes up to the orchid room to consult with Wolfe (who echoes that “no,” by the way). But when Archie comes downstairs he finds the visitor lying on the floor of the office, with Wolfe’s tie knotted far too tightly around her throat.

The great man is not pleased. And I don’t need to tell regular visitors to the series what Inspector Cramer will have to say about it. The only remedy for that bruised ego is for Wolfe to solve the murder himself. The problem is there are four equally-good suspects. How to find the guilty party? Hence that title, “Eeny Meeny Murder Mo.”

There are two other stories here as well. In “Death of a Demon,” a woman comes to Wolfe’s office carrying a gun which she want to leave with him. She says it’s the gun she will NOT use to murder her really awful husband. The only problem, of course, is that the husband is already dead. Shot to death. And here, once again, is Wolfe, drawn into a murder case despite his will, and forced to tread a very fine line between protecting his cient’s interests and obstruction of justice.

In the third story, “”Counterfeit for Murder,” we meet someone who may be one of the most engaging clients in Wolfe’s career: a boarding-house keeper named Hattie Annis. She shows up at Wolfe’s door with a bundle of counterfeit currency, apparently belonging to one of her boarders. When somebody tries to run her down with a stolen car, it becomes apparent that she is in considerable danger. But she’s not a happy client – she hates the police, and wants Wolfe to solve the case without involving the police or (as quickly becomes apparent) the secret service.

Hattie Annis is also something of a law to herself, when it comes to dealing with the brownstone crew. Not only does she call Archie “Buster,” but she astounds Wolfe by asking him to feed her lamb kidneys bourguignionne. I can think of very few characters in ANY of the Wolfe books, male or female, who has successfully astounded Wolfe. You will like Hattie Annis.

There we are. Three very good little Rex Stout novellas, in a tidy little package. Homicide Trinity is worth your time – particularly for Hattie Annis.

May 272013

The typewritten note certainly made the situation quite clear:

“We have got your Jimmy safe and sound. We haven’t hurt him any and you can have him back all in one piece for $500,000 if you play it right and keep it strictly between you and us. We mean strictly. If you try any tricks you’ll never see him again.”

That note had been sent to Althea Vail, who was now sitting in the office of Nero Wolfe, asking him for help. Her husband, Jimmy Vail, had been kidnapped. She was willing to pay the half million dollar ransom…but she wanted Nero Wolfe to make sure Jimmy was returned alive and in one piece. And Wolfe, with the prospect of a very rich fee in front of him, agreed – even though it would mean some very fancy footwork to avoid getting the police involved.

And, of course, it all led to murder…and more than a little inconvenience for both Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin…in The Final Deduction
, by Rex Stout. Originally published in 1961, The Final Deduction 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.

I suppose that a cynic might say that in The Final Deduction, Nero Wolfe was only in it for the money – although I’m not sure that isn’t true of most of his cases. Wolfe is lured into the case by the very large sum of money that Althea Vail was prepared to pay for the return of her husband. So when Jimmy Vail is released by his kidnappers and returns – alive – Wolfe is willing to agree to the victim’s plea that he say nothing about it for a couple of days. After all, the kidnapper had threatened Jimmy with death if he spoke out too soon.
Only there are complications. For one thing, a couple of murders suddenly bring the police on the scene – police who know nothing about that kidnapping. And Wolfe and Goodwin are forced to flee the brownstone to avoid talking to the cops in order to keep their promise of silence.
And, in the meantime, there’s also a lot of ransom money that has gone to someone. And Wolfe will be offered the chance to earn a significant portion of that money – if he can find it.

The Final Deduction is a relatively short mystery, and – perhaps as a result of that – it is quite tightly written. The kidnapping, its aftermath, and the murders in the book flow quickly and naturally. Fans of Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin and the rest of the regular recurring characters will find them in fine form here. I may be forgetting some other cases, but I don’t believe Nero Wolfe handled very many kidnappings. He’s in good form in The Final Deduction.

Apr 012013

Who’s that knocking at my door?

Why it’s three nasty little murder cases!

First, there’s the problem of the gourmet who found that the arsenic sprinkled on his appetizer really didn’t agree with him at all.

Then there was the female cab driver who pulled up outside the door…with a dead body in the back seat.

And finally, there was a party for some visiting rodeo stars where a visitor died rather suddenly when somebody decided to practice a fancy rope toss that wound up around the guest’s neck.

We’re talking about three interesting cases for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin in “Three at Wolfe’s Door,” by Rex Stout. The 1960 collection of three novellas is the subject of today’s audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.

It’s worth pointing out that none of these cases which landed at Wolfe’s door made Nero Wolfe particularly happy – but he wound up having to solve all of them, for a variety of reasons. After all, that deadly gourmet dinner was prepared by his own personal chef, Fritz Brenner. That cab driver showed up just as Archie had walked off the job, so Wolfe really had to get involved as well. And that deadly little party for the rodeo stars took place in the apartment of Archie’s close friend, Lily Rowan, who promptly hired Wolfe to find out who had abused her hospitality.

I would argue that many of Rex Stout’s novella-length mysteries are better than many of his full-length books, and I think that’s the case with these three novellas. Yes, there are some better ones in other collections, but this is a thoroughly enjoyable collection displaying the talents of Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin and Rex Stout quite nicely. It seems to be available both in paper and as an e-book, and you should add it to your To Be Read pile.


Mar 012013

Here’s an announcement from my friends at the Wolfe Pack that should be of interest to Nero Wolfe fans who live in the Baltimore-Washington area. There’s a new branch…oops, sorry, this is a Wolfe orchid…a new raceme forming in the mid-Atlantic area. The group is calling itself the Mid-Atlantic and Chesapeake Area Book Raceme, surely a MACABRe name for an organization, but there you are. At any rate, they are having a general get-acquainted meetup and gathering (and, for the braver souls among you, a costume party) on Saturday afternoon, March 16, in Baltimore, and they are planning their first book discussion for April. Details at the link above.

As I’ve said here fairly often, I try to attend as many of the New York-area Wolfe Pack events as possible, as they are always lively and entertaining gatherings. For those who live in the Baltimore/Washington/Annapolis area, I suggest you check out the new group!