Tag Archives: Nero Wolfe
This is a post in a series, where I work through the Nero Wolfe novels.
In the last eleven days, I have worked my way through 9 of the Wolfe books. In part this is possible because I have some of them in audio, and I listen to them while I’m at home writing Ars Magica supplements. In another part its possible because they are really small books, by modern standards, and a dedicated evening of insomnaical reading will knock one of them over.
This post was written on March 17, but I’ll alter its publication date it so that it doesn’t appear on our main page: I don’t want to snow it with the Wolfe canon. I’ll only review six of them now.
One of the novella collections, and not one of the strongest. The first and last stories work as puzzles, but I don’t feel they gave me the characterisation and wordplay that I really like in the Wolfe novels. The first is about a young man who is a Communist, and tells his aunt that he really works for the FBI. He is then killed and Wolfe needs to discover if he was really an intelligence agent, or if one of his comrades discovered the bluff he had told his aunt, and murdered him. Good, but not excellent.
The second story “Cop Killer” is a good one. Archie’s barber is accused of murdering a policeman, so Archie hides him, and his wife, in Wolfe’s house. Wolfe solves the mystery, but to beat him to it you need to know a little 1950s trivia. Stout was very interested in the rights of immigrants, and that shows through in this story, where he discusses the sorts of criminals who preyed on illegal immigrants in the poorer parts of New York.
The final story, “The Monkey and the Squirt” really didn’t work for me. It’s about a murder that is witnessed by a monkey, and Wolfe manages to solve it, but the explanation feels slightly stretched.
Prisoner’s Base (British title Out Goes She)
This is story has far more suspense than most of the others. A woman asks Archie to allow her to live, hidden, in Wolfe’s house for a period of time. Wolfe is in the plant rooms, so Archie doesn’t say yes, but hides her in the house so that Wolfe can consider it. A man arrives at the house and offers Wolfe $10 000 to find a particular young woman…who happens to be the one hidden upstairs. Wolfe asks the woman if she will match the man’s offer, and she refuses, so Wolfe gives her 24 hours to hide, before he comes looking for her.
In the 24 hours she is murdered. Archie goads Wolfe into solving the murder, despite the lack of a client, because he feels he bears some responsibility for her, and several related, deaths.
The Golden Spiders
A boy called Pete comes to Wolfe’s office and meets Archie, offering to cut Wolfe in, 50/50, on a case that has fallen into his lap. Archie lets him in to annoy Wolfe, who gets back at Archie by having a lengthy chat with Pete about the principles of detection, which Archie must takes notes of. This makes Archie miss his baseball game. This is a lovely little scene, and you can see why it was the foundational story for A&E TV series of Wolfe stories.
Pete was pulling a con where you wipe windshields at lights then demand money, and a female driver with golden spider earrings mouthed the words “Get a cop” to him. She had a passenger who Pete didn’t like the look of. Archie takes the details, but doesn’t think much of it, until Pete is killed by a hit and run driver. Wolfe won’t work for free, but Archie manages to get him on the job. They call in all of the usual hired hands, and the whole supporting cast work a mystery together. It’s one of the best Wolfe novels, and has more action than most, so its a departure from the more cerebral style of many of the books preceding it. It’s a bit of a wind up for the radical departure in form that comes in the next full-length novel.
Three Men Out
I’m sad to say this is my least favourite of the books thus far. It has three stories. The first is about a man who hires Wolfe to determine the matrimonial intentions of his wheelchair bound uncle. The solution’s barely plausible. The second is about a mathematical genius who uses algorithms to solve crime. I regret this has left such a small impression on my memory that I can’t even give you a plot synopsis. The third is about a baseball game, where one of the teams is drugged, and one of their rookies murdered. It’s not the evocative writing I expect from Stout. When he describes a country fair or a publishing house or a lunch counter, you usually get this image of slightly strange places, in a time past. His baseball game doesn’t give me any of that. I’m not sure if this is because of the novella format, or because Stout assumed his readers would just know the Polo Grounds and so he skipped it, but skip it he did. Maybe at the end I’ll come back to this book and give it another chance.
The Black Mountain
This is an excellent book for someone who already loves the series, but would be a difficult place for new readers to start. Ignoring his usual style, Wolfe flies to Montenegro to avenge the death of his best friend. Archie does not speak Serbocroat, and so his role as narrator is changed. Wolfe attempts to be an action hero, as he was in his youth, but that’s difficult when you weigh a third of a ton. So, it’s more an espionage story instead of a traditional Wolfe story. It’s good, and has Archie and Wolfe interacting in new and interesting ways, but it’s so far outside the usual that I couldn’t recommend it to new readers of the series.
This is the first Stout novel I ever read, so for me its difficult to assess it objectively. The murder victim is an advertising executive. He had created a quiz, with a massive cash prize, for a perfume company. For contestants to win they needed to identify famous cosmetic users from riddles published in the papers. When he winnows the entrants down to a handful, he ships them to New York to present them with five new riddles, to be solved within a week. He then tells them he has the answers in his wallet. Unsuprisingly, he winds up dead, and his wallet is stolen. Wolfe is hired not to find the murderer, but to get the advertising agency out of the PR nightmare this creates.
I really enjoy this story. Archie’s patter is great, and he has some good scenes with Saul Panzer. The puzzle is not, technically, how to solve the murder, but what happened to the answers, which allows Wolfe and Cramer towork with a level of detente that’s unusual. All in all, one of my favourites, but that may be and even larger dollop of sentiment than usual.
This post is part of a continuing series where I work my way through the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout.
Three doors to death
A set of three short stories.
Man alive: The client in the first story is the niece of a man who committed suicide by jumping naked into a geyser. She has since seen her uncle in the audience of her fashion shows. Murder follows, and the murdered man is the supposed suicide. It’s a bit strained as a puzzle, but it has some interesting setting elements.
There a funny piece where Archie’s metrosexuality is vital to him solving the case. In the 1940s, hard men like Archie really did care about their tailoring and labels. He tries to write it off as the influence of Lily Rowan and the other women in his life, but no: Archie’s a clotheshorse. He’s at a fashion show when this happens, and his comment on how the industry worked at that time is also interesting. The buyers really need to get it right: their jobs are on the line. You can’t help compare this to the modern fashion industry, where the more unwearable something is, the better the press it gets.
Omit flowers: A skilled chef gives up his solo career for a well paid job at a restaurant chain. When he is arrested for murder, a friend of Wolfe who’s a restaurateur gets the detective involved. It’s a neat puzzle, with a second attempt at murder as either a clue or a herring.
Door to Death: A relatively simple story, where Wolfe goes to hire an orchid nurse, and finds a corpse instead. Archie notes that Wolfe can’t even go looking into a strange greenhouse without someone turning up dead, which is basic lampshading, but his exasperation is funny. Not a bad story, but of all the books so far, this one has gripped me the least.
I think perhaps its place, as a diversion from the Zeck trilogy, does it a disservice.
In the best families (British title: Even in the best families)
This book has a murder, but that’s not the way it is originally framed, and the mystery you, as the reader, are solving is not either the one initially presented with, or the murder that intercedes into the investigation. You are, however, expected to try to solve all three in the course of the story, which is quite a feat for a little novel of the 1940s size. It is excellent.
A wealthy woman, Sarah Rackham, has been married to her husband for about a year. He has no money, so she initially gave him large amounts whenever he asked. She then started to refuse his requests, and he stopped making them. He is obviously, however, still spending a lot of money, and she hires Wolfe to discover where it is coming from, without her husband discovering that the inquiry has been undertaken.
During the investigation a murder occurs, and Wolfe receives a phone call from Arnold Zeck telling him to drop his enquiries. He emphasises this with a canister of tear gas delivered to one of Wolfe’s favourite places. Wolfe confers briefly with Archie, then simply walks out of his house and vanishes, leaving a note for Archie saying not to attempt to find him.
As the reader, you are trying to work out the murder, which Archie continues to pursue in the foreground of the story, but you are also trying to work out where Wolfe has gone and what his strategy is. When he remerges, he has a plan to strike at Zeck, which is kept from you so that it’s a sort of bonus mystery. It involves Archie in a deadly game of bluff, a couple of deathtraps, and a smashing cameo by Lily Rowan.
I’m sorry the Zeck trilogy is so early in the series: its first and last entries were both excellent books and The second confession is a very solid story, if not one of the very best.
Curtains for three
A set of three short stories. The first is an interesting piece, where a loving couple know that a man has been murdered, but they tampered with the scene so that the police ruled it a suicide. They come to Wolfe to find the murderer, because each is worried that it is the other, and they don’t want to marry until the matter is settled. The puzzle is fine, but the story lacks colour compared to some of the others.
The second is an odd story: it’s about a man shot while riding in Central Park. I’m not sure how it rates. The solution is more straightforward than usual and somehow it has slid mostly out of my memory during subsequent reading. This is clearly not a good sign, but I don’t recall disliking it during the read.
The third story is well designed. A con woman is visiting the orchid rooms in Wolfe’s house as part of a garden club’s tour. She sees someone she suspects of an unsolved murder during the flower display, and decides to come clean to Wolfe, giving him the few facts she knows, as precaution. She speaks to Archie, but before she can talk to Wolfe, she is strangled in his office. The story is short, but as Stout points out through Archie, it’s a mystery in which everyone with hands has the means, you are told the motive in advance, and there are a hundred people with opportunity. So: clever. The solution does need you to know a little about 1940s fashion, however.
Murder by the book
A man is found drowned in the river. His death seems linked to the murder of a reader for a book publisher, and a stenographer. Wolfe and Archie need to find a copy of the rough draft of the dead man’s novel, since it seems clear that the killer wants everyone who has read it to die. Who is the killer and what is his secret?
The setting of the story is interesting. Generally I loathe authors who write about writers, because they seem so self-indulgent. Stout gets around this by having a certain period charm, because his observations of the process of getting published are from the 1950s. Imagine a world where women work as freelance stenographers: you drop your longhand in at their office and then pick it up the next day, typed out to your instructions. Imagine a world where publishing houses even bother to read unsolicited manuscripts. It’s so alien that its not as bothersome as modern writers writing about writing.
Archie tours local publishers, and gives commentary on them. Is there an element of payback when Archie dismisses the decoration of one as like a railway dining car? He says that his publisher, Viking, has the staff with the best curves, but there’s no way to know if he’s serious, if this is a joke at the expense of the old men who Stout answered to, or if this is a specific complement to a particular woman, disguised as a generality.
Another part I thought was terribly funny is the way both the police and the killer complain about fingerprints. The villain complains about needing gloves not to leave fingerprints, and how much more time-consuming they make searching a room. The police also complain that nowadays, everyone knows all about fingerprints, so its hardly worth looking for them. So, each side sees fingerprinting as a tedious barrier to the business of killing people and catching killers. It’s easy to suggest that this is Stout speaking through his characters.
I have no evidence of that, but its interesting to consider how the fingerprint might have became a tedious element to detective writers, much as DNA is a tedious element to writers today. There was a backlash against fingerprints well before this. My wife’s reading The red thumb print at the moment, which is a book from the 1800s where the author makes clear that a thumbprint has been faked by a murderer who has heard all about this fingerprint business, and wants to use it to his advantage.
At the conclusion of this story, there’s a great question: is there a twist here? Is this Wolfe’s most tenuous, expansive and elaborate deathtrap, or has the murderer slipped away, and thrown someone else into Wolfe’s jaws? Cramer tries to wrap it up more tightly so you get the black-and-white dénouement which the Wolfe deathtraps usually give, and he sells it well, but when he’s selling it, there’s still another 20% of the book not read, so obviously there’s an extra twist.
Since I’d picked the guy who was already dead, I knew I’d got it wrong and walked straight into Stout’s trap. There must be a false bottom in the plot, and I hadn’t seen it at all. Continue reading
This post is part of a continuing series, where I work my way through Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books.
Trouble in triplicate
This is a set of three Wolfe short stories, but the book seems to be about a third bigger than the average novel in the series, so each story is half the length of a novel. This means you get a puzzle and few punchy scenes, but without the flummery needed to fill up an entire novel.
The three stories are good in that they vary widely in their outcomes. “Before I die” has Wolfe take a counter-blackmail job for a gangster, because of the Great Meat Shortage and his incapacity to subsist on a vegetarian diet. It contains the very bloodiest of his deathtraps so far, and because its such a short story, the trap springs far earlier than I was expecting. A solid story, but not one of the very top flight.
In “Help wanted: Male” Wolfe recevies a death threat, and to deal with it he hires a body double. This is a great deal of fun. The solution is very implausible, but the process of the solution is intrricate enough that I forgive it the couple of really obvious places where you go “Well, the murderer was lucky there!”
“Instead of evidence” is really a cracker of a puzzle: it’s truly excellent. The owner of a novelty factory is killed with an exploding cigar, and Wolfe pursues the murderer, who is partcularly inventive. His deathtrap is telegraphed well in advance.
The puzzle plays with the conventions of the genre in an amusing way, and it is one of my favourite short stories so far.
The second confession
Back in “An be a villain” we were first introduced to Arnold Zeck, a mastermind at the head of a shadowy empire of criminals and corrupt officials. Zeck rang Wolfe, threatened him, and then retracted the threat when it turned out that Wolfe’s enquiries were not going to trouble his organisation.
In this novel, we again see a threat from Zeck, who attacks Wolfe’s most vulnerable point as a warning. Wolfe still solves the puzzle, but he and Archie put in place contingency plans, in case they ever reach a point where they must confront Zeck.
The story itself, which begins with a wealthy man wanting Wolfe to prove his daughter’s boyfriend a Communist so that she will break off with him, is a little on the weak side. Archie’s tactics, which include a misplaced Mickey Finn and getting himself mugged, are really novel, and set this series apart from cozier contemporaries, without every going into hardboiled territory. Murder follows, and the story didn’t really grip me, because it seemed to be a distraction from the gathering forces, as Wolfe and his nemesis each prerpare for a possible, but not inevitable, fatal confrontation. Continue reading
This is the third post in a series about the Nero Wolfe novels, which I’m reading from beginning to end.
The silent speaker
This is one of the best stories in the series, according to various critics. The characters are written well, and the puzzle, and sub-puzzle using a maguffin, is both intricate and fair. The victim is the head of a government anti-corruption body, and is killed while giving an address to a meeting of industrialists. The industrialist body hires Wolfe to solve the murder, which is causing a scandal.
The two bodies, the government agency and the industrialist body, spend much of the novel trying to use the media’s reaction to the murder to harm the rival organisation.
The solution’s a good one, and one of the supporting characters, a clever and determined woman, shows that the misogyny of Nero Wolfe isn’t shared by his author. This is one the better stories, seen as a puzzle.
Too many women
A large number of fans really like this novel, but for me it wasn’t quite so solid. Perhaps I was getting some of the supporting characters confused. Basically Archie solos most of this book, investigating a murder in an office which employs a pool of female stenographers, and he is fossicking among them for clues. This lets him get in some great lines, which is fun.
The puzzle underneath is a bit weak, in hindsight. That is, I’m not entirely sold on the solution’s plausibility.
And be a villain (British title: More deaths than one)
A radio hostess with a secret, a dead guest and enough money to lead Nero Wolfe to go fishing for her custom. Its background colour is vivid, in part I presume because Stout ran a radio program during the war that was basically “Mythbusters for Nazi propaganda”.
Perhaps the most intricate of the stories so far, with so many twists in the plot that it is difficult to keep score of who is the true target of the murderer. This really is excellent. I may favor the others more for comedy, or action, but in terms of the author hoodwinking you, apologising, and then explaining that his apology was false and that he’s tricked you again and again, it’s the best of the series so far. It’s clever, not so much in the puzzle itself, but in its play on the reader’s expectations of the genre.
If you are playing to beat the detective, be aware that the denoument of the book is suprisingly brief. It’s fair, but if you were expecting a long scene with all the suspects gathered, where Wolfe goes Poirot and accuses everyone else and then his murderer, the ending will grab onto you before you are quite ready for it Continue reading
Between audio and paper I’m working my way through the Nero Wolfe series of detective novels.
Now, on bookcoasters we kind of encourage you to use the site as your reading diary, so that other people can see what you liked and why. I do this with a post each month about what sequels I’ve read. The thing is, though, if I keep writing about a new Nero Wolfe each month, all my posts will look the same. So, what I’m doing is using a little trick we have, which delays the posts so that they never appear on the initial splash page, and don’t trigger the RSS feeds. This means that the page won’t be swamped with my Nero Wolfe reading, but it’ll still be available for people doing tag searches.
I don’t want to be that boring guy in the book club who always reads the same stuff, and so says the same thing every time its his turn. 8)
Sorry for the length! This is a month’s worth of Wolfes: I’ll try to post more regularly. Library members will need to ask for interlibrary loans for a lot of these.
I reread Fer-de-lance for the book club. It’s the first in the series and perhaps not the strongest, in that the characters have not fully come into themselves. The story is solid, the conclusion good. We see the first of Nero Wolfe’s death traps, which I take a peverse and childish glee in.
The League of frightened men is about a group of men whose college prank caused a fellow student to lose a foot, and they have tried to assauge their guilt during the intervening years with payments of money. They believe that the amputee has begun killing them off, and they hire Wolfe to prove it, and prevent their deaths. The twist is easy to spot coming, but that’s OK, because when it comes, it means you are so busy saying to yourself “See I saw that coming.” that you aren’t watching for the clues about who the murderer is. So, by telegraphing its red herring, it does the old magician’s trick of waving the left hand to stop you from looking at the right.
A lot of fans of the series seem to really like this one. For me it’s a solid read, but not one of the very best. I think its because it is excellent as a puzzle, but not as excellent in terms of characterisation and humor, which are big appeal factors for me.
The rubber band is again, a solid story. It is very conventional in its structure, which is suprising because Stout usually does twists. I enjoyed it, but a little less than the others in this list. It has a bit of blackmail, a few conmen, and a wealthy diplomat with a secret in his past. Its one of the few where I picked the murderer with some ease, and that’s rare for me because I generally don’t bother trying to beat the detective.
The red box is my favourite so far. It’s the first time we really see the Wolfe and Archie interacting with Inspector Cramer in their strange alliance of friendly emnity. By this stage even minor characters are up to speed, and the series can really take off. The inital murder, of a model via a sugared almond, and the client’s way of finangling Wolfe’s involvement, sets things up well, and the story has a few obvious twists, for which I forgive it because the interaction between the lead characters is so witty and sharp. The story eventually winds its way to the point where Wolfe can only prove who the murderer is if he can find the epynomus red box before his quarry does. His method of discovering its location is ingenious.
Too many cooks : now, this is a great story, with reservations for those sensitive to racist language. Wolfe is asked to give an address to a group of the finest fifteen chefs in the world about the contribution of America to haute cuisine. As a lover of cuisine myself, its an excellent read just for the colour in the stories. Also, the recipies from this story were later collected in The Nero Wolfe cookbook, which Amazon promises I”ll own any day now.
The chefs have professional rivalries and personal jealousies, and one is stabbed. Wolfe wants to solve it, because it rankles his sense of hospitality, and because he can almost see a way to get the recipe for the best sausages in the world out of this whole business if he gets everything to fall into place. Strangely I’ve forgotten who the murderer is, because I concentrated instead on if Wolfe snagged the sausage recipe.
Wolfe uses the black waiters and attendants at this spa to help him solve the case. The book is from the 1940s, and so its extraordinary to see how Stout plays out the racial angle. Wolfe hates racism: he thanks the black workers for building America so that immigrants like him could come there to make new lives. At the same time, Archie is casually racist in the way he speaks, not merely about black people, but about just about everyone (so far, Hispanics, Italians, Montenegrans, English people and the French or perhaps Swiss, but not Jews which is strange because there are several within the distance needed for pithy witticism at their expense.) He doesn’t seem to mean it, in the modern sense of thinking people inferior. He kind of reminds me of a teenager who uses these terms to show his own cleverness. He does the same thing to women and disabled people too, which is perhaps a convetion of the genre. So, for me, this interplay between an author who is clearly working a non-racist angle and the overt verbal non-PCishness of his heroic characters is fascinating.
Some buried Caesar: An excellent book. Wolfe and Archie are trapped in the wilds of the rural US. There’s a man who owns some cheap restaurants in New York, and he’s bought the most valuable bull in the country, to make into a barbecue lunch for the media. The major breeders for that type of bull come to plead with him to sell the bull back. People begin to die. Archie meets Lily Rowan, who is his on-again-off-again love interest for the rest of the series. The murders are creative but plausible, and the writing of the scenery is so good I’m going to blog about it separately.
Over my dead body: I’ve blogged about this over here. A good book which I have spoiled for myself by watching too much television.
Where there’s a will: This is a relatively simple puzzle, about a disputed will and the murders which follow. I enjoyed it, but I don’t feel it’s as strong a book as some of the others. Certainly, the mix of action and deduction seems a little different to the stories I have enjoyed more.
Black orchids: I’ve blogged this over here. It’s two novellas tied together. The first I really enjoyed: Wolfe getting mercenary with his fellow orchid growers is a special treat. The second story is a trifle weaker although the method of murder in each is ingenious. I was going to say it was weaker because the victim is implausible, but given that she is modelled on a real person, that’s unfair of me. Continue reading
This is my second post about the Nero Wolfe series, which I’m reading (or listening to) from top to tail.
Not quite dead enough
Two novellas of uneven size in one volume. The first is a very simple mystery, with an ending which Wolfe himself says is ridiculous. The puzzle could be repaired easily, to make it vaguely sensible, but Stout doesn’t bother. This is because the way to make the story work is to kill Lily Rowan, and that’s not on.
Lily is back, and its good to see her again, but she’s less sharp this time, because she’s gone soft on Archie and so she’s letting him get in cracks that she’d usually have rejoinders for.
As a character piece, it’s funny: Archie is now in the army, and Wolfe is trying to slim down and enlist. Archie goes to enormous lengths to get Wolfe back into detective mode. All of this is a great deal of fun, it’s just that the mystery underneath is a bit silly.
The second novella is Booby Trap, which is short and very good. Archie’s still in the army, and is investigating the murder of an increasing number of officers. It has one of Wolfe’s death-traps, of course. How could it not with a name like “Booby Trap?”
I was a bit off colour over New Years’ and my specialist has said “You need to exercise” so I’ve been walking 5 kilometers a night on my treadmill and listening to audiobooks.
Weirdly, PG Wodehouse books don’t seem funny in exercise audio. Maybe the read is bad? Maybe my idea of jaunty is different to the reader’s? Maybe the steady monotone of my feet pounding at 5.2 kilometers an hour throws off the comic timing? I can’t tell, but I am very disappointed that it is the case.
Anyhow, I’ve finished off Morality for beautiful girls and The Kalahari Typing School for Men which are in the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. They are cozy mysteries, lacking even the murders considered necessary by some proponents of the form, but they have a gentle pace and a subtle humour which works really well while trying to not concentrate on the treadmill clock. I’ve decided to listen to the whole series as I walk, and in the summer heat of my un-airconditioned room, it kind of feels like I’m walking to Botswana.
I’ve also started on some Nero Wolfes through Overdrive. I’m hoist on my own petard here, because if I hadn’t kept banging on about Rex Stout, I’d now be listening to Some buried Caesar, but someone else has it out. 8) As I recall, it’s an excellent book, has a great scene at a country fete, and introduces Lily Rowan, the love interest who flits non-commitally through the rest of the series. I have it on hold, so I’ll be marching steadily through it soon, toward the twist ending which I, sadly, already know.
Instead I’m through Over my dead body, which is good for fans of the series because it gives you Wolfe’s background and hints as to why he became obese and a detective. It would be a bit better if I’d not seen it done by for television, which means I know who did it, why, how, and what the twist is, but I wanted to listen to it because it’s as close as we get to an origin story for Wolfe, and I wanted to be up to speed.
Now I’m pacing through the first half of Black orchids. Black orchids is I believe, structurally, two novellas stuck together, if I understand the first few paragraphs correctly, which is interesting. The novella form, in the hands of a master, is an excellent one for mysteries, because it means you get the puzzle, some snappy lines and some characterisation, but not all the padding and herring necessary to get it up to modern novel length. This one’s a good one: the lovestruck Archie gets in some cracking quips, and we get to see Wolfe indulge in ingratiation, then blackmail, with one of his rival orchid growers. The second story isn’t, IMO, as much fun as the first, so far, but it may end well. I’m hoping for a deathtrap: we’ll see if I get one.
The other big bit of reading I’m doing is On war by Carl von Clausewitz. I’ll post about it separately, because I’m reading it out loud, and podcasting it for Librivox. My plan for 2010 is to record at least one chapter of Clausewitz a week. By 2011 I will, therefore, be the library’s undisputed master of Napoleonic warfare, and will be able to guide us right if we try to open a Mobile Library stop in the middle of a Russian winter. Continue reading
Over the New Year I have been quite unwell. It made me more, than ever, a great fan of the audiobook. Avoiding the boredom of being bedridden, I have been in my study, snoozing gently to the sound of audiobooks played from my computer.
I worked my way through a series of Nero Wolfe radio plays, hosted by the fundamentally fantastic Internet Archive. They don’t quite play Archie Goodwin the way I see him in my mind, but they are still excellent. I also finally got around to listening to The murder of Roger Ackroyd. This is seminal work in the mystery genre by Agatha Christie. I already knew the ending twist, so it didn’t really matter that I listened to it, half conscious, sometimes snoozing, while recuperating. (Those of you watching the marvelous David Suchet as Poirot are, in this case, missing out, because the twist has been removed in the television version.)
I also listened to some Sherlock Holmes radio plays, which are very funny, because Watson keeps taking breaks to encourage the narrator to flog meanswear on behalf of the sponsors. A better collection might have been this one, which are the old Basil Rathbone plays.
And so I’d like to suggest to you that if you have never downloaded an audiobook, you take a few minutes to check out our OverDrive service, and to check out Internet Archive. You can never tell when you are going to be a bit under the weather, and there’s something very comforting to be able to listen to a favourite author while you snooze away in a comfy chair.
(Oh, a special bonus for Nero Wolfe fans. After a rights problem, the radio producers kept making Wolfe stories, but changed the names of the characters. Here’s a link to the Fat man.) Continue reading
When I suggested Fer-de-lance as our read for this month, I did in a sort of quandry, should I suggest The golden spiders instead?
If you were showing someone Sherlock Holmes for the first time, would you give them A study in scarlet or The hound of the Baskervilles? If you were offering them Poirot, would you give them The mysterious affair at Styles or Murder on the Orient Express?
Fer-de-lance is the first of the Nero Wolfe novels, but in much the same way that Poirot is not at his best in his first book, and Holmes is not fulled rounded in A study in scarlet, so similarly the characters in it are not at their best. Archie is a bit of a racist here, and a bit more abrasive than later. His smooth, quick patter is one of the features of the stories. Wolfe is a little less overtly vain in later books. He thinks highly of himself, but you see his vanity in his acts, not so much in him noting his own genius.
The lesser characters are also stronger. The doctor in Fer-de-lance sounds very like Wolfe himself. This doesn’t happen in the stories. The basic formula is here, and I love the characters in the series, but I’m concerned I am not showing them at their best.
Eventually I settled on Fer-de-lance because it is the first book, even if it pretends otherwise, and because the library doesn’t have Golden spiders in paper. We have electronic audio and DVD instead. Nero’s Wolfe’s books flip in and out of print on a rotating basis and Fer-de-lance is one which is pretty much constantly available.
I would, however, like to suggest to readers that if they kind of liked the book, but aren’t sure, they should check out the excellent DVD of the television series, which is available from the library service. This will tell them, in a few brief hours, if this series in its later form is the sort of thing they will enjoy. Continue reading
Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout is a classic mystery novel. First published in 1934, it debuts the detecting duo of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Although they go on to a further, astonishing, 72 adventures, this novel provides a delightful introduction to their character, habits and idiosyncrasies. With his passion for orchids, his gourmet tastes, a persistent refusal to leave his New York house and profound, beer-swilling, obese indolence, Wolfe is certainly eccentric, and Archie provides the perfect smart-mouthed, cynical but decent, gumshoe foil. It’s hard not to like the two, particularly as they verbally spar, with quotes such as:
Compose yourself, Archie. Why taunt me? Why upbraid me? I am merely a genius, not a god.
But enough about the characters, what about the story?
A man disappears and no-one seems to care, except his sister, who is willing to pay Mr Wolfe to investigate. That means Wolfe stays at home, tends his orchids and thinks; making sense of the information that Archie retrieves for him. Archie discovers that the missing man was interested in the sudden death, seemingly from a stroke, of a golf-playing college president. Wolfe puts it all together and it equals murder, but he has a hard time convincing the authorities that a crime has even been committed.
And the title? A little outre, but catchier than the relevant snake’s proper title of Bothrops atrox. Continue reading