Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: From Some Buried Caesar to Not Quite Dead Enough

This is the second part of the Nero Wolfe Project, where I review each of the books from this classic mystery series.

The next set of books includes Some Buried Caesar, Over My Dead Body, Where There's A Will, Black Orchids, and Not Quite Dead Enough.

Some Buried Caesar: Archie crashes the roadster on the way to an orchid show...with Wolfe in the back seat. Stopping to get help, they encounter a family who owns a prize bull, of which the owner plans on slaughtering for a barbeque out of spite a marketing ploy for his restaurant. When a fellow is murdered (but covered up as being gored) and then the bull is infected and destroyed before evidence can be cleared, it's up to Wolfe to solve the murder.

This is rightly classified as one of the classics of the Nero Wolfe series. It's a good, solid mystery; it introduces Lily Rowan, a long-running companion to Archie; it has some good humor in it (and Archie's wisecracking is second to Wolfe's reactions to being out of his element) and the dialogue and situations flow fairly well. For those being introduced to the series, this is usually a pretty good entry point: at this point, Stout has got the characterizations right and has honed his abilities, it's an easily relatable story, and it introduces everyone in a natural manner. The only drawback for newcomers is a lack of Inspector Cramer.

Over My Dead Body: When Wolfe's long-lost daughter turns up (don't ask) and she seeks help after being falsely accused of stealing diamonds at the fencing school she frequents, Wolfe gets involved after a Archie ends up with the incriminating weapon of a subsequent murder at the school. In a game of international intrigue (and the use of Wolfe's office as an unwitting dead drop for important documents) Wolfe has to disentangle not only the passions of the accused, but his own background, Cramer's insistence of sticking around the office, and the occasional appearance of an FBI agent.

This is one of the more famous Wolfe novels for one main reason, and that is that, during an interrogation with the FBI agent, Wolfe claims to be born in America. This is in direct conflict with all previous evidence, and seemingly was forgotten for the remainder of the series. In real life, the publisher of the stories, The American Magazine, objected that Nero Wolfe--the master of detection!--wasn't a full-blooded American, and demanded the change. Stout complied, and then completely ignored it. It's been effectively retconned by fans as essentially Wolfe acting impudent to the G-man instead of an honest declaration of facts, which is within Wolfe's characterizations (although not really with the tone of that passage).

Likewise, the fact that it delves into some of Wolfe's background--for which we previously knew very little--is a treat for fans of the series.

Where There's A Will: I screwed up and read Black Orchids first. Oh well.

Wolfe, whose back account is dwindling rapidly, hears a case of a famous family of successful sisters who want a will contested. Reluctantly, he undertakes the job--only to have Cramer announce that it was actually a murder. And when Archie goes out to help Fred Durkin with a job, Wolfe has to rush to the sisters' home to deal with the ensuing chaos. Add in the widow, whose face was terribly mangled in an accident and thus wears a veil, and a (presumed) mistress, who is ending up with the bulk of the estate, sets up a crime scene full of mistaken identities, missed opportunities, and yet another murder.

The evidence Wolfe uses on this mystery is a little bit shaky, and isn't one of the best. Yet it's still a fun book to read; especially poor Fred Durkin who somehow manages to screw up not once, not twice, but three times. It's a solid book but not a great one.

Black Orchids: At this point, Stout was beginning to writer shorter stories, and from this point on there are just as many "collections" as there are full-length novels. This book has Black Orchids, in which a public flower display unwittingly hosts a murder--of which Archie ends up (accidentally) pulling the trigger. Wolfe uncovers a plot to intentionally infect rivals' flowers and other plants with a horticultural disease, and when confronted in Wolfe's plant rooms, attempts to murder everyone with fumigation.

In Cordially Invited To Meet Death, a party planner wants Wolfe to investigate who is sending reputation-destroying letters to people. While Archie investigates, he arrives at a house full of highly trained animals as well as people. When a chimp smashes a tray, the party planner cuts her foot, and applies iodine. Her death a few days later ends up being because the iodine was replaced with a poison. A failed attempt by the murderer to "replicate" the poison (and thus put her above suspicion) fails, and Wolfe catches the murderer.

The short stories operate a little differently than the full-length novels (we'll see the same in the next book). In the novels, it's a spiraling confluence of evidence that eventually gets the murderer to crack; but with the short stories, there's only enough time for one, maybe two pieces of evidence to introduce. While in and of itself it's not a bad thing, they can sometimes feel rushed and implausible, and yet one gets the feeling that fleshing it out to a full story wouldn't add too much to the plot. Still, both of these stories are solid if not groundbreaking, although the fact that Wolfe deliberately causes the suspect to unknowlingly murder himself seems...weird and out of character. (And also probably a crime!)

Not Quite Dead Enough: This book includes Not Quite Dead Enough and Booby Trap. This is unique in that it was the only book set (and written during) World War II, and Archie is actually a Major in the army's counter-intelligence division and not in the employ of Wolfe (although, for all practical purposes, he is.)

Not Quite Dead Enough involves Archie coming back to New York, in Army uniform, to find that Wolfe and Fritz have decided to join the infantry to help out in the war. ("I am going to kill some Germans. I didn't kill enough in 1918.") It's up to Archie--with orders from the Army--to convince Wolfe he's more useful in counter-intelligence than on the front lines. A modest little murder is enough to whet his appetite again, and agrees to help out the Army.

Booby Trap involves some good old-fashioned espionage; letters accusing some commanders of profiting off of the war (at least potentially) sparks an investigation into a death that previous was ruled a suicide. When Archie, who had a prototype grenade in his possession from a previous mission, returns it (Wolfe not wanting it in the house), it becomes the instrument in yet another murder. It's up to Wolfe to find out who did it.

This is probably one of the few misfires of the lot so far. At least for Not Quite Dead Enough, which is a shame, because it has one of the funniest chapters written yet (Archie, coming home to find Wolfe not only eating nothing but non-black-market food, but has actually tried to lose weight and is wearing one of Archie's sweaters). It fails for two main reasons: one, Archie implicates himself in a murder to get Wolfe's attention, which is out-and-out batshit crazy even in the fictional world of Nero Wolfe. Secondly, it re-introduces Lily Rowan, who in the past was presented as a reasonably non-stereotypical (for the time) independent woman, is sadly reduced to hysteria, and the main piece of evidence hinges on her acting like a hormonal mess. It's an uncharacteristic step backwards for the usually culturally progressive Stout.

Booby Trap is better, although the ending (letting the murderer kill himself in a rather gruesome manner) is also a bit odd; the evidence is pretty skimpy to begin with and Wolfe's prodding him into suicide seems almost cruel.

One thing to note so far, after ten books: although one of the main gimmicks of the series is that Wolfe never leaves his house, he leaves an awful lot so far--in fact, I think in only two of the stories he spends the entire time at home.

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