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.