Nero Wolfe by Rex Stout and Robert Goldsborough
I recently reread this Nero Wolfe mystery and enjoyed it much more than I did the first time. I didn’t remember any of the details of the plot except that Wolfe was asked to do the impossible (again), only this time it really does appear to be impossible. The FBI is harassing a millionaire for distributing a book that is highly critical of the FBI. She wants Wolfe to make them stop and he wants the ridiculously high fee she is willing to pay to make that happen.
So how do you get the FBI to back off? Some people might think you turn to your lawyers or, seeing as how rich the woman is, to her senators and congressmen. Wolfe decides to try and blackmail them by finding a case they have bungled very badly and publicizing it, or better yet, one in which they have done something criminal themselves. Helping Wolfe very slightly is Inspector Cramer, who, like many local cops, doesn’t like the FBI. He also thinks that three of their agents murdered a citizen of NYC.
So, Wolfe is attempting to get some serious dirt on the FBI which he hopes to use to convince them to back off of his client and the effort pushes Wolfe’s peculiar sense of honor to its limits. This really is a very enjoyable case.
34 Too Many Clients by Rex Stout
Rex Stout certainly knows how to catch a reader’s interest. This time Archie Goodwin is asked by a man to shadow him to find out who has been tailing him—except that the man who hires him is not the man he says he is. That man is already dead. And that’s how Stout starts a case in which Wolfe is desperate to find a client who can pay him to solve a mystery that has captured his interest. It’s fascinating from start to finish—and I’m pleased that I identified the probable culprit early in the story. But like Wolfe, I had to wait to find out why that person would have committed murder.
In Series Order
1 Fer de Lance by Rex Stout
This is the first Nero Wolfe adventure and it is packed with the things that make Wolfe stories so much fun to read while still showing that Stout was getting a feel for the supporting cast. I’ve been told that Nero Wolfe is reported to be the son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. He certainly lives up to that parentage in this novel, although in truth he acts more like Mycroft Holmes than the more active Sherlock.
In this novel, Nero Wolfe is uncharacteristically driven to do a favor for the friend of one of his operatives. The favor is to find out what happened to her brother who has disappeared. And he makes a leap from this seemingly smalltime investigation to flamboyant push for a criminal investigation into the recent death of a university president on a White Plains golf course. The flamboyance—betting the district attorney in White Plains $10,000 that he will find a needle in the abdomen of the dead man (who reportedly died of natural causes) leads to the exhumation of the body but not to Wolfe’s involvement in the investigation. That comes when the dead man’s widow offers $50,000 to the person who provides the evidence to bring her husband’s murderer to justice.
And so we’re off on a crazy journey in which we learn all about Nero Wolfe and his main assistant, Archie Goodwin. Nero is an overweight man with a love of orchids and food, a grave fear of leaving his house, and a keen disinclination to do hard work. In fact, he’s only driven to conduct an investigation when his bank account gets dangerously low. (Fine dining and orchids cost a lot of money.) Archie is his capable hands and feet. He’s smart too, but not anywhere near Nero Wolfe smart. The stories are told by him and that gives we the readers our in as well. We know everything that Archie knows, but not necessarily everything that Nero Wolfe knows.
In an Ellery Queen style story, all of the information needed to solve the crime is made available to the reader. That is not always true in a Nero Wolfe mystery. But then, Nero Wolfe is always more interested in earning his fee than in justice. He’s also highly interested in his own comfort. So, watching Wolfe bring about the big reveal at the end of the story is always a pleasure and in this case it also offers special insight into the man called Wolfe.
2 The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout
The second Nero Wolfe novel is one of Rex Stout’s best. Two men, part of a large group of college friends with a tragedy binding them together, have died. One was ruled to have passed on by accident and the other by suicide, but someone is mailing the rest of the friends poems that lead them to believe that these two men were murdered and they are next on the list of intended victims. They are in terror, but guilt over the earlier mentioned tragedy in which a foolish college prank led to the crippling of a man, prevents them from taking direct action to save themselves from becoming victim number three. When Wolfe finds out about the problem, he devises a clever scheme for supporting his orchid practice. He basically agrees to put their minds at rest in regard to Paul Chapin (the crippled alleged murderer) for one of his usual lofty fees. He then goes about investigating the deaths of the two men (and the disappearance of a third).
I thought I had figured this one out from very early on, but as the story wound its way back and forth I came to doubt my first suspicion. It’s always fun to watch Wolfe and Archie struggle with the problem. But what really makes this book stand above so many of its peers was Wolfe’s need to clear Chapin of a criminal charge in order to be certain he could collect his fee. This one is gripping from beginning to end.
3 The Rubber Band by Rex Stout
This is one of my favorite Nero Wolfe novels. It’s a tale of two apparently unconnected mysteries—one a theft and the other a murder that meld into one of the most fascinating cases of Wolfe’s career dating back decades to an attempted lynching in a western mining town and a debt both real and of honor that was incurred in saving the life of the man to be hanged. But how to connect that long ago act of bravery and good will to the theft and the murder? That’s what makes Rex Stout’s mysteries so wonderful—watching clues be dug up and manipulated but never quite knowing how that incredible brain of Nero Wolfe’s is putting all the pieces together.
Of course, the best part of all of this is Stout gives a clue right up front that would be very easy to miss. If you catch that clue and hold onto it throughout all the twists and turns to come, you will be able to proudly claim that you knew the murderer from the beginning of the novel—but that doesn’t mean you can prove it. That’s up to Nero Wolfe. But then, it’s the Wolfe show at the end of each book that makes these novels so unique, isn’t it?
4 The Red Box by Rex Stout
Nero Wolfe is browbeaten into leave his home to investigate a case. That little fact alone should be enough to get any Wolfe fan to read this novel, but of course, there is so very much more to this story in which no one—not even the murderer’s intended victim and those who care about him—will reveal the information Wolfe desperately needs to prevent a crime. This is a novel that shows you how very good Wolfe is when the chips are down and he has nothing tangible to move on. It’s especially exciting toward the end when we realize that he had figured out almost everything that was happening in the first couple of chapters and most of the rest of the book is a desperate search for evidence (or, as is often the case in these books, for Wolfe to concoct convincing enough evidence to trick the villain into revealing his or herself. In the last book, I was thrilled to have figured out the bulk of what was happening right from the beginning of the story. This time I had no idea who the bad guy was until Wolfe revealed him or her to the reader. And not having figured it out did not reduce my enjoyment a single iota. The Red Box is simply another great Nero Wolfe mystery.
5 Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout
It’s a truism about Nero Wolf that he doesn’t like to leave his house even though he does leave it in two of the first four novels. This time, the whole book takes place outside the Brownstone and the reader gets to see just how strong a phobia being out of his own controlled environment is for the detective. We also get to see the extra burden this places on Archie Goodwin.
This is one of the very best Nero Wolfe novels. The event that gets Wolfe out of his house is the invitation to give a speech to the fifteen greatest chef’s in the world on the wonders of American cooking. But that’s just the excuse, the real reason—and it so Wolfe—is that one of the chefs has cooked a dish of sausages that was one of the great culinary treats of Wolfe’s life and he wants to try and get the recipe out of him so he can enjoy it in his own home. Keep that motivation in mind, because his desire for that recipe—plus his absolute need to get back on the scheduled train to return to NYC as soon as his speech is finished, is Wolfe’s driving motivation throughout the whole story.
And what a story it is. Just about every chef in attendance has a reason to hate one of their number—a truly despicable man who has stolen one’s wife, one’s job, and one’s assistant, plus a recipe from just about everyone else. So it’s a cinch that he’s going to be killed because there are so many possible murderers. And when that happens, it’s both a pleasure and a horror, because the men most likely to be the killer are people we like. Wolfe is trying hard to stay out of it (remember, he wants nothing to interfere with his train ride home to NYC) but when the chef with the sausage recipe gets charged with the murder, Wolfe sees a chance to obtain a treasure money literally cannot buy.
So Wolfe takes on the task of clearing the chef and this leads to the single best chapter I have read to date in all of Rex Stout’s books. In chapter eleven, he works with a—let’s call them a skeptical audience of African American waiters and chefs’ assistants—and slowly draws out startling revelations that totally break all of the reader’s preconceived notions of the case. Any one of these revelations would have been wonderful, but the totality is awesome. After which, Wolfe, having achieved his objective of clearing the chef, is ready to quit the case again without discovering the murderer, because staying on might cause him to miss his ride home. But then the murderer makes a particularly egregious error and this excellent novel gets kicked up another notch as we barrel toward the conclusion.
A final note about this book, it seems impossible to not mention the extraordinary and intricate planning Stout must have undertaken to make this book work. First there is the food. I’m not a foodie—pizza or hamburgers generally keep me happy—but Stout knows his cuisine and as the reader, you will believe that the greatest chefs in the world are preparing these meals. But what is even more impressive, Stout must have mapped out what every waiter and assistant cook did in bringing these meals to life as well, because the details just keep flowing at appropriate moments, that so-and-so served this, and so-and-so prepared that, in a way that makes the entire environment both mystifying and totally believable.
This may well be Stout’s single best Nero Wolfe novel.
6 Some Buried Caesar by Rex Stout
Wow! Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries just keep getting better and better. This one starts with a car crash in which Wolfe and Archie wreck their vehicle in the middle of the countryside. Wolfe has decided to enter some of his orchids in a competition at a fair in order to get the better of a rival orchid grower. He decides against waiting in the wrecked car while Archie goes for help and so the two start across a field toward a nearby farmhouse. That’s when they encounter Caesar, a gigantic bull who is totally opposed to sharing his field with them. And the story just gets better from there. In fact, we were many chapters in before the murder that will dominate the novel even occurs and the action and the dialogue and the tension between the various groups who will become the murder suspects was so engaging that I didn’t even realize the real plot hadn’t started yet. Stout had pulled me in and I loved every page of it.
Then the murder happens and the temperature gets turned up even hotter. Unlike the last time that we saw Wolfe out of his brownstone, he actually appears willing to seek out employment. It turns out (not known until later in the novel) that this is because he has already figured out all the particulars of the case within half an hour of the killing. But Wolfe in his arrogance makes one tiny mistake that turns an easy solution into a serious problem that may be beyond even his abilities to redeem.
About two thirds of the way through the story, Stout very subtly drops a clue that provides the thread that lets the reader figure out what Wolfe has known since the murder was committed. Now I often say in these reviews that I figured out who the killer was. This time, I not only used that clue to figure out the murderer, but I even figured out all the particulars of the how and why the crime was committed. What I didn’t figure out until way toward the end, was how Wolfe was going to prove it.
This is another absolutely wonderful Nero Wolfe mystery. It has the added benefit of introducing Lily Rowan who will appear in a great many future novels. If you like Nero Wolfe stories, or have been thinking of trying one, this is a must read.
Nero Wolfe has a daughter who is every bit as cantankerous and all-around-difficult as he is. Visiting the U.S. she only makes her existence known when she gets in trouble—accused of stealing some diamonds from a locker in a fencing studio—but murder can’t be far behind in a Nero Wolfe mystery. This one stands apart because everything that happens involves a cast of international operatives seeking to advance a secret intrigue. Wolfe and Archie have to unravel a lot more than who killed who to get to the bottom of this mystery and they have to do it with a client even less helpful than Nero Wolfe.
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.
9 Black Orchids by Rex Stout
I like the shorter Nero Wolfe mysteries even more than I do the full-length novels. They’re obviously more compact and that makes me feel like I can digest them more quickly and that deludes me into thinking I have a better chance to figure out who committed the crime—not that I came anywhere close to doing that in either of the two mysteries in this volume.
The heart of the first story is the black orchid of the title—someone has bred a perfectly black orchid and Nero Wolfe wants it. He is so obsessed that he actually leaves his home to go to the flower show and try to wrangle the flower from the owner. So Wolfe is on the scene when the murder happens and he is finally motivated to solve the crime when he figures out that his payment can be the orchids he so desires.
In the second, a woman is being libeled to the harm of her business and she wants Wolfe to put an end to it. Once again, Stout comes up with a great plot that would have been interesting even without the murder that always occurs somewhere in a Wolfe case. The clues were all there, but I didn’t come anywhere close to solving this one either—not that that dampened my enjoyment. It’s watching Wolfe work that makes this series so special.
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.
11 The Silent Speaker by Rex Stout
There’s a large cast of suspects in the eleventh Nero Wolfe mystery with everyone seeming to have a bone to pick with the murder victim. To make things worse, there really are no clues (at least no clues that the reader could be expected to pick up upon) to identify the culprit. What there is is a missing recording cylinder which may or may not help to identify the miscreant.
So, in other words, it’s a typically impossible Nero Wolfe case, but what makes this mystery stand out above others is that Wolfe gets mortally offended twice—a dead person on his doorstep (so to speak) and a new Homicide Inspector who is determined to go after Wolfe with rubber hoses. It’s a fascinating case which brings Wolfe places I never expected him to go.
12 Too Many Women by Rex Stout
This novel is a rare thing for me—a Nero Wolfe mystery that I didn’t like. Perhaps the problem is that it didn’t read like a Nero Wolfe mystery. Wolfe has a very small part in the novel—especially in the first half. Also, we don’t even know that there was a crime for the first 50% of the book—not, in fact, until a second crime is committed and starts to heat things up a bit. The first half reads like scene setting as Archie goes sort-of-undercover mostly because Wolfe is piqued with him and seems to want him out of the house for a while.
And the great endings that we’ve come to know and love—we don’t get one in this book. There is a great final confrontation but it’s not the normal affair and it doesn’t lead to a satisfying ending. So Wolfe is smart and figured it out. It has no impact, so who cares?
13 And Be a Villain by Rex Stout
In the previous book in this series, Rex Stout hit the bottom of his barrel. In this novel, he’s back at the top of his game, pulling me into the story immediately and never relinquishing his hold on my interest. It’s time to pay the IRS and Nero Wolfe needs cash to foot the bill. So he goes looking for work, focusing on a popular radio program in which a guest died from poison on the air. Right from the initial bargaining over whether or not it was in the show’s interest to pay him to find the killer, through many exciting twists and turns, Stout provides a nailbiter. Who murdered the guest? Why did they do so? And how is that connected to the other people dying around the show. The solution surprised me, but it made total sense and frankly my suspect list should have included the murderer.
The only thing I didn’t like about this novel was the inclusion of master criminal, Zeck. I am not found of Zeck, and therefore was unhappy that he played a small but important role in the case. It didn’t really hurt the book, but since I don’t like the character it added a slight negative taste for me.
On the positive side, this is Wolfe at his best, manipulating the police into working for him and acting on sheer bravado to bring a killer to justice even though he can’t find any evidence to prove his case.
14 Trouble in Triplicate by Rex Stout
Every once in a while, Stout treats Nero Wolfe fans to a group of novellae—stories that are a little bit simpler than his full-length novels but every bit as good. In Before I Die, Wolfe gets one of those problems that I wouldn’t even begin to know how to approach. A gangster has tried to protect his real daughter by hiring a woman to play the role and that woman is now blackmailing him. Wolfe has to call her off without endangering the real daughter. And then of course, everything is complicated by s violent death. (I don’t know why someone has to die in every Nero Wolfe story. The original problem was fascinating without the murder.)
In Help Wanted, Male, someone is out to kill Nero Wolfe and he, quite naturally, wants to prevent that from happening. This is a fun little novella and not only because I figured out the bad guy and his motivation. What’s really best about it is that Nero Wolfe makes an embarrassing mistake which is, as readers of the series know, highly unusual.
In Instead of Evidence, Wolfe is maneuvered into figuring out who is responsible for killing a man with an exploding cigar. Yes, you read that correctly. The murder weapon is a lethal version of a novelty prank item and the suspects all work for a company that designs such pranks. As one would expect from Stout, it’s another very clever mystery.
15 The Second Confession by Rex Stout
Nero Wolfe is at it again in this excellent mystery and it’s a pleasure to watch him maneuver with clients, lawmen, and criminals alike. Hired essentially to discredit the suiter of a millionaire’s daughter, things get complicated when a criminal mastermind threatens Wolfe off the case by machinegunning Wolfe’s prized plant rooms. This gets Wolfe out of his beloved house to try and resolve matters, only to have the unwanted suiter murdered with Wolfe’s car. The client wants to know who the killer is, but then changes his mind making Wolfe pursue the investigation without him.
It's a great mystery and I enjoyed every page. The eventual solution was ingenious. But make no mistake Rex Stout is not writing Ellery Queen mysteries. The reader knows there is a piece of evidence that Wolfe is keeping to himself, but we don’t get to see it in time to solve this crime ourselves. But then, it’s watching Wolfe draw out the criminal that is the ultimate pleasure in these stories, and this one was simply great.
16 In the Best Families by Rex Stout
In the Best Families open as a traditional Nero Wolfe mystery with Wolfe being asked to investigate the secret source of money a wealthy woman’s husband has come into, but things take an unexpected twist when Stout’s Moriarity, Arnold Zeck, warns Wolfe off the case. Wolfe, of course, doesn’t listen and his client ends up dead the same night triggering the most bizarre of Nero Wolfe mysteries as Wolfe flees his home and goes underground to plot the downfall of Zeck—a criminal so influential that even Inspector Cramer says he is untouchable. No prosecutor will charge him, no court will convict him, and no prison will hold him.
The obvious solution to Wolfe’s problem is to assassinate the man. Wolfe is a genius. He undoubtedly could think of a way to do that, but that is far too simple an answer for Nero Wolfe. Instead, at his Machiavellian best, he gears up to go head-to-head with a criminal who may just be as smart as Wolfe is.
This is a great novel. I never liked the Arnold Zeck character, but I still say it’s a great novel because of the extremes Wolfe is willing to go to get Zeck out of his life and professional career.
17 Three Doors to Death by Rex Stout
Here are three more novellas by Rex Stout featuring everyone’s favorite detective pair, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Novellas are a good medium for these mysteries because you can read them in a single sitting, maximizing the experience.
In Man Alive, Wolfe is hired to find a man who was supposed to have committed suicide. It looks like a fairly straightforward job until he’s actually found dead and the client is accused of murdering him.
In Omit Flowers, Wolfe is coerced into working for free when pressure is brought to bear by one of his very few genuine friends. I particularly like this one because I figured out who the killer was and even why she had done it—even if I didn’t catch the clue that led to Wolfe solving the case.
Finally, in Door to Death, Wolfe is motivated to protect an orchid grower from a charge of murder. This one has a classic Wolfe trap in it that I found incredibly believable.
All in all, there are three nice mysteries in this collection.
18 Curtains for Three by Rex Stout
The thing I like most about Rex Stout’s collections of novellas is that you can easily read each story in one sitting. No chance to forget a key detail. You digest the story as you go and hopefully come up with the villain before Nero Wolfe tells you who it is. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t guess the villains this time, but I felt like I should have which is a credit to Stout’s writing.
My favorite of the three was the first in which a woman and her lover find her husband’s body after he’s committed suicide—except, maybe it wasn’t suicide. Maybe one of them did it. And they have to know the truth before they go ahead and marry each other. The problem? The gun that was lying by her husband’s side when they brought the police in wasn’t there when they discovered the body. So, who moved the gun?
What makes this novella so much fun is what happens after Nero Wolfe proves who moved the gun, and of course, his solution to the crime is absolutely outstanding.
The other stories are also a lot of fun, but didn’t stand out to me as strongly as the first.
19 Murder by the Book by Rex Stout
Stout does it again! Police in two different jurisdictions each have a murder victim that—unknown to them—are linked by the most fragile of threads. Fortunately, Nero Wolfe is around to make the connections for them. But what a fragile connection it is! Both victims had contact with an unpublished book and that contact seems to be the motivating force behind their murder. Why? How? Not even Nero Wolfe seems to have a clue, but that doesn’t stop him from working the very slight angles he can find nor from performing his magic to make the murderer act again.
I figured out a tremendous amount of the mystery and—like Homicide Detective Cramer—it got me nowhere. Each new clue fit snugly into my developing idea of the crime and I still couldn’t get to the solution. Nero Wolfe then gave a huge hint, and I still didn’t identify the criminal. And yet, I thought that Stout was fairer with the reader than he usually is. Wolfe wasn’t hiding his clues this time. All the information is there for a reader sharp enough to put the clues together to solve the mystery.
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.
21 Triple Jeopardy by Rex Stout
Rex Stout always provides a good mystery, but sometimes he leaves out the clues that let the reader solve the crime. In these cases, the fun comes from watching Nero Wolfe play a gambit to trick the murderer into exposing himself. Triple Jeopardy offers both styles of story.
In Home to Roost I had no idea who had committed the crime, but once Wolfe’s trick ran its course, I kicked myself for not even suspecting the culprit.
In Cop Killer, Stout gets Wolfe to both work for free and leave his home. The mystery is only okay, but the drama is first rate.
Finally, in The Squirt and the Monkey, Stout provided a plethora of clues and I missed every one of them.
Really, you’d think that Inspector Cramer would finally figure out that he just let Wolfe solve the crimes.
22 The Golden Spiders by Rex Stout
When Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin have a spat over Wolfe’s rudeness, Archie tries to get back at Wolfe by permitting a 12 year old street kid who shows up with a “case” for Wolfe to join them at dinner, Wolfe uses the arrival to get back at Archie, making him take notes and treat the interview as a serious case. Both men are shocked a couple of days later when the boy is killed—probably by the man he came to get Wolfe’s help regarding. To make matters worse, the boy’s mother arrives and gives Wolfe the dead child’s life’s savings (a couple of dollars) because it was her son’s last wish. Angry at himself, but also (without acknowledging it) clearly feeling some responsibility toward the dead boy, Wolfe spends the money on a one in a million gambit that pulls him firmly into a fascinating case in which the major clue is a pair of bizarre spider earrings.
I love this novel because it shows a touch of humanity in Nero Wolfe that the great detective would clearly prefer that no one knows he has. It also shows him and his team of operatives at his best taking one impossibly small clue and using it to solve three murders. I didn’t figure this one out, but I certainly enjoyed watching Wolfe do so. This novel shows once again why Nero Wolfe deserves to be counted among the greatest of fictional detectives.
23 The Black Mountain by Rex Stout
This novel opens with a shocking and truly sad murder. The victim is one of Nero Wolfe’s genuine friends, Marko Vukcic. Marko either appeared or was mentioned in just about every Nero Wolfe novel to this point. He was a world class chef who was one of the few people that Wolfe would leave his house for. He could also motivate Wolfe to take on tasks Wolfe didn’t want to. They were genuinely friends and Stout open the novel by having Marko killed in what is essentially a drive by shooting. Wolfe is so upset that he both goes to the morgue to see the body and actually visits the crime scene. He then vows to bring the killer to justice starting what should have been the best and most powerful of Nero Wolfe stories.
Should have been, but didn’t quite make it. Wolfe does things that one would never have believed based on the rest of the series. He and Archie sneak into Montenegro in search of the murderer (and the murderer of yet another victim close to Wolfe) and frankly it just didn’t feel like a Wolfe mystery. The whole middle of the book, Archie and Wolfe stumble from one event to another and don’t seem to have to do any detecting to learn the identity of the murderer. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable. But then, Stout remembers what makes Wolfe great. Rather than have Wolfe kill his friend’s murderer, Wolfe decides to find a way to get back to New York City where he can face justice. Seeing as the killer is an agent of a communist government and is in that communist country, this seems a very tall order to fill. But it’s Nero Wolfe we’re talking about. And just as he solves his case, he saves the story.
24 Three Men Out by Rex Stout
Nero Wolfe is at it again, attempting to identify a killer, and at the same time make a lot of money. In two of these cases, he’s out of his house, which always adds to the tension in the story. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow of the plots here. I’m just going to say that Stout has managed to produce three highly distinctive stories for this collection. No two of them come close to “feeling” the same. So whether it’s in a millionaire’s home, Wolfe’s brownstone, or at the baseball stadium, here are three stories that will test your ability to figure out the killer before Nero Wolfe.
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.
26 Might As Well Be Dead by Rex Stout
A midwestern man accuses his son of stealing $26,000 from him 11 years ago and the son disappears to New York City. Now proof has been found that the son was not the thief and the man’s wife and daughters coerce him into making things right with the son. The problem? He can’t find him. Nero Wolfe enters the case and almost immediately determines that the missing man (living under an assumed name) is a poor fellow who has just been convicted of murder. The greedy side of Wolfe wants to simply inform the father that he has found the boy and collect his fee, but the young man is so upset at the idea that his parents will see him under these conditions that Wolfe hesitates and ends up committing himself to proving that the convicted man is in fact innocent even though the young man won’t help him save himself.
And that’s just the setup. This is one of Stout’s best mysteries. There is murder, murder, and more murder—but the only clue is that people keep dying. I guessed the right villain, but once again I did it mostly from my familiarity with how Stout’s mind works. I had no evidence, but boy was it satisfying when Wolfe finally produced it.
27 Three Witnesses by Rex Stout
This collection holds another three great stories featuring Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. In the first, The Next Witness, Wolfe has been subpoenaed to testify in court about his meeting with a client he rejected. While listening to the testimony of the witness ahead of him he realizes that his almost-client is innocent and decides to do something about it. What follows is one of the most delightful Nero Wolfe stories as he can’t go home (because there is a warrant out for him for not showing up in court) and so he must actually investigate himself and then figure out a way to get the truth admitted into evidence. It’s a wonderful, if atypical, look at Nero Wolfe.
In When a Man Murders, Wolfe is brought into the sad case of a woman who has remarried after her husband was reported dead in the Korean War, only to have him come home and get murdered Her new husband is arrested for the crime, but Wolfe thinks he’s innocent and the culprit must be one of the dead man’s heirs. It’s an intriguing little puzzle handled with Stout’s usual finesse.
Finally, Die Like a Dog is the rarest of rarities—a case in which Wolfe had no hope of being paid. He gets involved in the murder case because Archie and he are mad at each other and using a stray dog to irritate each other. Only the dog isn’t a stray—it’s the key to a rather unusual murder case—unusual even by Wolfe’s standards.
28 If Death Ever Slept by Rex Stout
This novel is a little slow to get started as is often the case when Nero Wolfe accepts a non-murder case. Archie gets sent to pose as a secretary and live with a millionaire’s family to gather information that incriminates the man’s daughter-in-law as the person leaking his secrets to business rivals. Now, aside from the fact that Wolfe doesn’t usually accept cases where there is a predetermined solution, it just wasn’t all that interesting. There are a lot of chapters of Archie getting to know the millionaire’s family before we have our first hint at the typical Wolfe crime—murder.
After that, things begin to improve a little, but it’s really not until well after the second murder that I began to feel like we were genuinely in a Nero Wolfe mystery. Strangely enough, that feeling came only shortly before Wolfe returned his client’s money and left the case. Overall, while I really liked the ending, I thought this was perhaps the weakest of the Nero Wolfe mysteries I’ve read so far.
29 Three for the Chair by Rex Stout
Here are three more excellent novellas featuring Nero Wolfe. The best of the lot is the final one, Too Many Detectives, in which Wolfe and a large number of NYC detectives have been subpoenaed to testify about the practice of wiretapping when a client who tricked Wolfe into performing an illegal tap is murdered. The answer should have been obvious, but it wasn’t to me.
In the first story, A Window for Death, Wolfe takes the most insignificant element of a case—a carton of ice cream—and uses it to uncover a murderer.
And finally, in Immune to Murder, Wolfe’s culinary genius proves the key to unlocking the crime.
They are all great little stories.
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.
31 Champagne for One by Rex Stout
One of the very impressive things about Rex Stout is the truly wide assortment of ways he comes up with for people to murder each other in his stories, In Champagne for One, it’s poison, but no one can figure out how the poison was administered—no one but Nero Wolfe, that is.
The setting is a little bit complicated. Archie Goodwin is asked to attend an annual event to honor the deceased first husband of a fabulously rich New Yorker. The deceased husband had done a lot of work with helping unmarried women who find themselves in a family way give birth and restart their lives. Once a year, four of those women are invited to his (now his wife’s) home for a sort of society affair in which they are paired with men of good birth for an evening of civil conversation. Archie doesn’t fit the description but gets dragged into the affair at the last moment when one of the intended guests gets laryngitis. One of the women dies by cyanide poisoning when drinking a glass of champagne. Because she was known to be contemplating suicide, everyone wants to believe that she killed herself. But Archie saw her take the drink and knew she had not added anything to it.
That’s the set up—tremendous political pressure for Archie to change his statement and Wolfe getting dragged in half against his will. Add to that a secret client who needs to keep his own relationship with the dead woman from becoming public knowledge and a whole host of suspects who are rather angry that this whole difficult affair won’t just go away.
And then Wolfe pulls the first of two cats out of his bag—he thinks of an angle that no one else is pursuing that surprised me even though we’ve had all the same information paraded before us that Wolfe has had. The second act is how he catches the murderer.
I’ve not embarrassed to admit that I would never have figured this out if Wolfe/Stout hadn’t told me, but after he revealed the secret I certainly felt like I should have.
32 Plot it Yourself by Rex StoutStout outdoes himself in this Nero Wolfe mystery focusing on the world of publishing and the serious problem of plagiarism. Approached by a “joint committee” representing both publishers and authors, Wolfe is hired to stop a person from pursuing a claim of plagiarism against a novelist. It’s the fifth such case in five years, each targeting marvelously successful books, and all involved are tired of paying out what they believe to be fraudulent claims. Wolfe takes the case and things get seriously interesting. I was nearly one hundred pages into the story before I suddenly remembered that Wolfe mysteries always involve murder. Usually, I am less fond of the books that take a long time in getting to the crime, but not this time. The story sucked me in and the murders only increased the tension. This is a great tale with one of the most intriguing final scenes Stout ever penned.
33 Three at Wolfe’s Door by Rex Stout
Rex Stout excels at writing the novella-length mystery story and this trilogy was so enjoyable that I decided to go back and reread the entire series. In each of these three mysteries, Wolfe has been discombobulated by either having to leave the house or (in the second one) lose Archie’s services because Archie quits. So right off there is an amusing tension added to the atmosphere of the story by having Wolfe be out of his preferred environment and not taking it well.I thought that Stout played more fair with the reader than he often does. There’s a logic puzzle to be unraveled in each of these stories as Wolfe and the reader try to figure out who the killer really is. These novella-sized nuggets of Wolfe are perfect for digesting in a single sitting. If you’ve ever thought about reading a Nero Wolfe story, this is a good place to start.
36 Homicide Trinity by Rex Stout
I think Nero Wolfe adventures work best in the novella format. The shorter mysteries offer a better chance at solving the crime and figuring out how Wolfe will bring the villain to justice. Homicide Trinity offers three such tales and I thoroughly enjoyed each of them. Perhaps that’s because each crime felt so distinctive.
In the first mystery, Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Mo, the victim is strangled with Wolfe’s own necktie and the personal insult Wolfe feels from this drives him to ferret out the murderer to protect his own self-esteem and reputation. In the second mystery, Death of a Demon, Wolfe and Archie have to figure out which victim of blackmail murdered their tormentor. In the final story, Counterfeit for Murder, the key to the killer is in identifying which of them was also a counterfeiter.
Stout doesn’t always play straight in his mysteries, but at least in the first and the third of these he dropped enough clues that I could identify a prime suspect waiting only for the evidence to be dragged out to confirm my suspicions—and isn’t that the way Wolfe often solves his cases?
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.
Robert Goldsborough's Nero Wolfe Books in Order
1 Murder in E-Minor by Robert Goldsborough
I’ve been reading (and in some cases rereading) the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout and decided to try one of Robert Goldsborough’s continuations of the series. I started with his first book, Murder in E-Minor. It’s well written and almost feels like Stout wrote it. Goldsborough’s mastery of the characters is absolute and I got all the enjoyment out of this book that I get from a genuine Rex Stout Nero Wolfe story. At the start of the story, Wolfe’s been in “retirement” for two years due to events in the last of Stout’s full novels (more on that later) and a case has finally arisen that Archie Goodwin is desperately hoping can pull Wolfe back into the detective business. It’s a good mystery and lets Wolfe do his thing, although I would suggest that perhaps the true “joy” of the book is getting the cast back together, letting Cramer yell at Wolfe, seeing Saul Panzer make his contributions, getting Archie and Fritz back into their respective grooves.
My complaint may not be a fair one. I have not yet read the last of Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, but, thanks to this novel I now know who the killer is and how shocking that was for Wolfe and Archie. I really regret that. I feel like I’ve had that book spoiled for me, although I think that it was not unreasonable for Goldsborough to expect that those choosing to read his new series would be familiar with Stout’s old one. So, unfortunate, but not something I can in good conscious hold against Goldsborough.
2 Death on Deadline by Robert Goldsborough
Every once in a while, Nero Wolfe is motivated to adopt a mission that makes him change his modus operandi. When Stout was writing, Wolfe decided to enlist in the army to fight Nazis and another time he decided to leave not just his precious home, but the entire United States to avenge the murder of a friend. This time, he is driven to abnormal behavior by the threat of a tabloid-esq publisher buying the New York Gazette. He spends more than $30,000 without a client or a crime to try and stop the takeover and the reader is deep into the story before a crime (murder, of course) is even committed.
Despite the unusual behavior on Wolfe’s part, this book reads like classic Rex Stout. Wolfe will not be deterred and when the murder gives him a more traditional path to achieve his ends, he grasps hold and pushes his investigation to a very satisfying ending.
The only thing that might be a little off in this novel is Inspector Cramer. After reading a couple dozen of Stout’s novels, I expect him to show up and yell at Wolfe a bit more than he does in this book. But that only occurred to me after I finished reading. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment of a superb tale.
3 The Bloodied Ivy by Robert Goldsborough
Goldsborough certainly understands the relationship between Wolfe and Archie quite well. This time he uses it to have Archie finagle Wolfe into an investigation of a death that may not even be murder. In fact, the reader is eighty percent through with the novel before the first clear evidence that a crime has been committed is even uncovered.
The plot revolves around a thoroughly unlikeable college professor who seems to have gone out of his way to pick fights with people. When he falls into a ravine on campus, the police quickly call it an accident and wash their hands of the case. But the professor’s best friend can’t let it go, and even though he can’t think of anyone who would actually try to kill his old friend, he hires Wolfe to figure out who murdered him.
Not that anything is that easy—but then if it was simple, the book wouldn’t be worth reading.
I especially liked the end of this one, maybe because I was right.
4 The Last Coincidence by Robert Goldsborough
Lily Rowan’s niece has been attacked and Archie Goodwin is determined to do something about it—even while protecting the secret that she’s been assaulted. Unfortunately, shortly after he gets on the case, the assailant is murdered. I thought Archie was going to be in some trouble over this, but things quickly take an even more dire turn when Rowan’s nephew confesses to the crime even though no one thinks he could have done it.
When Wolfe is badgered into taking the case to find the true killer, it looks to be a fairly typical mystery. The big problem is that none of the suspects can be eliminated because they all had the opportunity to commit the crime. This leads to a classic Wolfe ending in which he gathers everyone together to ferret out the guilty party.
The Last Coincidence is a fun, fasting moving book in which I was delighted to see Inspector Cramer return in all his former glory, shouting at Wolfe and trying to bully him into releasing information that Wolfe may or may not have, but isn’t going to give to him anyway. It was a delight, even if I didn’t figure out who the murderer was.
5 Fade to Black by Robert Goldsborough
This time, Wolfe and Archie are hired to determine who is leaking critical information from one marketing firm to another. As Archie begins their investigation, we learn just enough about the cast of suspects to be interested when a murder ups the ante all around. I figured out the leaker and murderer almost from moment one, but never had anything remotely approaching evidence to support my suspicions. Wolfe manages to come to the same conclusion I did also without evidence, although at least he constructed a logical chain of events to point to his assumed culprit. Everything concludes in a classic Wolfe confrontation scene but without the bang we usually get from a Stout or Goldsborough novel. This is an enjoyable book, but it’s not one of the best.
6 Silver Spire by Robert Goldsborough
Someone is threatening the life of a prominent minister, but Wolfe doesn’t like the idea of working for a group of evangelicals no matter how wealthy they are. So, he refuses the case, but when asked for a recommendation on another private investigator, Archie suggests Fred Durkin. A week later, Durkin is arrested for homicide.
Now I understand that it is politically awkward for the NYC police force to investigate and potentially arrest prominent churchmen and women, but the Durkin case always felt like a farce. The police have two pieces of evidence against Durkin. The dead man yelled at him, and Durkin’s gun was used. Durkin’s defense is that he took off his gun and hung it beneath his coat while at the church—something which was easily verifiable. But there we have it. Durkin is going down for murder so that wealthy political doners aren’t offended and Inspector Cramer is going along with it. It still doesn’t make sense.
Wolfe gets involved because Durkin is associated
with him. The ending was not as dramatic as a traditional Wolfe case, although
the murderer did make sense. It was also nice to see Wolfe do more with a set
of bible verses then the bible-thumping church men and women could. But when
all is said and done, this is only an average Nero Wolfe mystery.
7 The Missing Chapter by Robert Goldsborough
This time Goldsborough enmeshes Wolfe in the world of publishing when he’s asked to prove that an unpopular writer didn’t commit suicide. I’ll bet this was a fun book for Goldsborough to write as he plays with a world that he must know very well—even poking some fun at himself along the way.
The mystery is solid and the reason for the crime touched my heart. The victim is no saint and while no one deserves to be murdered, I certainly wish the jury would have gone easy on this killer.
Other Rex Stout Novels
Her Forbidden Knight by Rex Stout
Rex Stout is best known for his Nero Wolfe mysteries, but he has some other novels out there and this was a good one. I wouldn’t actually term this a mystery although at times it almost felt like one. Back in the 1890s in New York City, several men have taken it upon themselves to protect a young woman employed as a telegraph operator. She didn’t ask them to do this, but they have devoted themselves to her in a somewhat chivalric fashion and look out for her. She sees them as friends but gets annoyed when they interfere with her life as they do when they decide that a man who is romantically interested in her is not good enough for her. On the surface, they appear correct. They learn through one of their number that he is a counterfeiter. But they don’t know the whole story and they don’t know that one of their own has evil designs on the woman.
So this is a crime story, but not the crime the counterfeiting may lead you to think it is. And it leads to an exciting courtroom drama in which the young and extremely honest woman is expected to be the lead witness against the man who has captured her heart. There are a couple of nice twists and turns in the story and the ending feels like a solution Nero Wolfe would have come up with. I really enjoyed it.