Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout
This collection of four short stories featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin is great if you’re looking for a quick mystery. Because of the length there are fewer loose ends to keep track of, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will figure out the villain because Stout doesn’t always play fair. It’s not uncommon for Nero Wolfe to have a piece of information that isn’t shared with the reader, such as the contents of the photograph Archie takes in Easter Parade. It’s also not uncommon for him to trap people into exposing themselves instead of using old fashioned detective work. That didn’t really dampen my enjoyment of the stories, however, because the heart of every Nero Wolfe mystery is the at times tense relationship between Wolfe and Archie. Stout’s created an archetypal detective pairing here that has recurred in many other stories. Wolfe never leaves his mansion and sends Archie out to do all of his footwork. Archie’s more than competent in his own right, but Wolfe is a genius and watching him pull the strings of the various players in the mystery is always a delight. While Glen Cook, in his Garrett Files, and now Dan Wickline, in his Lucius Fogg series, do it well, no one surpasses the master, Rex Stout.
From page one this mystery pulled me right in. Nero Wolfe is hired to find out which of five finalists in a contest stole the answers worth half a million dollars (and incidentally murdered a man when the answers disappeared). The personalities are classic Stout—individual and interesting. And the challenge is just the sort of impossible task Wolfe thrives on. This one is great right up until the moment when we find out who the murderer was. I don’t disagree with the murderer’s identity, but the solution wasn’t as satisfying as I’ve come to expect from Stout.
This is one of the better Nero Wolfe mysteries. The novel opens with Wolfe accepting a case that I couldn’t figure out how he could possibly resolve. His clients want him to convince a woman—the mistress of their dead brother—not to accept the huge bequest he left her in his will. I mean—who turns down a 7 million dollar bequest? But Wolfe takes the case and gets to work just in time to learn that the dead brother is a murder victim, not an accident victim, and then things really get moving. With a murder to solve, Wolfe is back in his element and the investigation gets even intense. I thought I had this one solved—and was wrong. It’s a good one.
Every mystery needs a twist to make it extra interesting and in this one, that twist is Nero Wolfe’s daughter. Her existence comes as a surprise to everyone except (presumably) Wolfe and it adds an extra twist to the story. Wolfe isn’t working to support his orchids, but to keep his daughter out of jail. The mystery itself is solid, but not fantastic.
This is one of the best Rex Stout novels I’ve ever read. Nero Wolfe’s longtime assistant, Orrie Cather, has been accused of murder and Wolfe decides that as a matter of honor he has to prove him innocent. The case is very complex. The woman was blackmailing Cather after finding out he planned to marry another woman, and to complicate things, she was the kept woman of yet another man. Her sister is embarrassed by her “profession” and well you can see that there is no end to suspects. This one will keep you guessing as Wolfe not only has to find out who really committed the crime but a way to make some money out of it.
Even if there wasn’t two good mysteries, this book would be worth reading just to see Nero Wolfe not being Nero Wolfe. Archie is in the army and Wolfe had decided he wants to enlist as a common soldier so he can kill German so he’s given up beer and fine dining to—brace yourself—exercise. Yet the army wants Wolfe solving national security problems for them and Archie has to figure out how to get Wolfe back to being Wolfe. This one’s a lot of fun.
A successful novel has to catch a reader’s attention right away and in Prisoner’s Base Rex Stout does this admirably by having an apparently wealthy young woman arrive on Wolfe’s doorstep asking to move in for a week. Wolfe is not fond of women or changes to his routine so this seemingly innocent request is an unthinkable intrusion for him. He ultimately rejects the woman’s request, she leaves, and is murdered a few hours later. Why she was killed (and of course who did it) is the focus of the rest of the novel and it’s a fascinating quest complicated by two more related killings. It’s a good tale and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but I feel that once again Stout plays unfair with the reader. Wolfe gets information we don’t have and it lets him solve the mystery. Admittedly, I failed to form the hypothesis that Wolfe formed that led him to send Saul Panzer after the secret info, but it still feels unfair.
This wasn’t your typical Nero Wolfe mystery. He’s hired literally to get the FBI off the back of millionaire and he takes the job because he’s greedy, but it was by no means clear how he could possibly pull off this feat. The solution wasn’t completely satisfying to me but getting there was a lot of fun.