Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Nero Wolfe Project: Three Doors to Death to Triple Jeopardy

This is the fourth installment of the Nero Wolfe Project, reviewing each of the books as they were published.

Let's take a look at Three Doors to Death, In The Best Families, Curtains For Three, Murder By The Book, and Triple Jeopardy.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, we're slowly moving into the time frame where Rex Stout is writing more short stories than novels; in this case, Three Doors to Death, Curtains For Three, and Triple Jeopardy are all compilations. (The "three" theme will continue for the remainder of the series, for better or worse.)

Three Doors To Death includes Man Alive, Omit Flowers, and Door To Death.

In Man Alive, A wealthy fashion designer suspects that her uncle--long assumed to have committed suicide--is still alive, and so she hires Wolfe to prove it if possible. When the uncle turns up dead, Wolfe gains a client. A decent mystery with a little bit too much repetition.

Omit Flowers involves Wolfe's old friend, Marko Vukcic, in clearing his chef of charges as a favor. Again, a solid mystery although ultimately forgettable; aside from the unusual setup (no fee involved), I had to look it up to get the plot.

In Door To Death, Theodore has to leave to stay with an ill relative, and in the meantime Wolfe is on the hunt for a replacement. Of course, the moment he shows up to get the new gardener, the gardener is accused of murdering his fiance, and Wolfe has to solve the case to get his replacement. As opposed to the other two mysteries in this collection, this one is fun and memorable, if for no other reason than it's enjoyable to have Wolfe occasionally out of his element.

This collection is notable in three respects. The foreword notes that Wolfe took no fee for two of the three, and Archie goes through pains to note how unusual this is. (Of course, Wolfe was doing a favor for Vukcic in one, getting some good meals in the process, and in the other he's getting a gardener, so it's not like he's altruistic all the way.) Two: In each of these cases, Wolfe at some point pulls the same tactic: he falsifies evidence to draw the murderer out. It's an effective and often enjoyable mechanic, but one feels that if it's done too often (especially in the short stories, since it's a quick and easy way to reach a resolution) it might get stale. And, finally, even though this book was published in 1950, the stories actually predate The Second Confession, so if you are reading these in order (as I am) you actually want to read these stories first. (It doesn't really matter, although some references in The Second Confession don't make much sense otherwise.)

In The Best Families: The third (and final) book of the Zeck Trilogy, this novel starts out normally enough: a mother wants Wolfe to investigate the source of income from her daughter's husband, who has no job yet still lives lavishly. The source, of course, is soon discovered--Zeck sends a warning to Wolfe to back off the investigation. Wolfe, of course, refuses, sending Archie to the estate to do some investigating. Upon his return, Wolfe is gone--he's relieved Fritz and Theodore of their duties, and gives explicit instructions not to be found. After waiting a while, Archie sets up shop on his own, until events resolve themselves.

By far one of the more interesting stories--this is one of the few novels that delves into the personal lives of Archie and Wolfe, and the "formula" is knocked on its head halfway through the book. Equal parts sad and amazing--Archie, Fritz, and Theodore standing outside the brownstone lamenting the turn of events reads very clinically and yet one can tell is emotionally draining on all of them. I would have preferred this book happened later in the series, if for no other reason than to have the impact a little more, but the novel as a standalone is fairly amazing. While there are nitpicks about the resolution (I won't go into it) overall it's one of the top books so far.

Curtains For Three has The Gun With Wings, Bullet For One, and Disguise For Murder.

In The Gun With Wings, a complicated suicide-turned-murder of an opera singer merits investigation by Wolfe. The victim, who had been punched maliciously in the throat by a rival singer, also managed to irritate a whole host of suspects. An interesting double-reverse whammy of a plot--the gun keeps "moving" due to the motives of various suspects.

In Bullet For One, an industrialist is shot while on horseback, and yet all the suspects have solid alibis. A decent, if overly simple, mystery.

In Disguise For Murder, Wolfe hosts a flower show...only to have one of the garden club members killed in Wolfe's own office. The victim, who had confessed to being a confidence woman but swore to go straight, advised that she had seen a previous "client" at the show and he had recognized her, but before Archie could get the details she was killed. Wolfe's office was thus sealed as a crime scene--in what Wolfe could only surmise was a deliberate act of malice against him by the police department, and solving the murder would be the best way to not only get his office back but also embarrass the cops.

All are good mysteries; The Gun With Wings has an interesting premise, although it sort of peters out at the end; Bullet For One is actually pretty entertaining even if the mystery is incredibly simple; and Digsuise for Murder has a lackluster mystery but is absolutely hilarious.

Murder By The Book: It seems like everyone who has come in contact with a specific book--Put Not Your Trust--meets an untimely end. It's up to Wolfe to link the murders together and find out why the manuscript is so deadly.

OK, that's a short description, but it's actually a very good novel--it's just easy to give too much away. (The whole notion that it's the manuscript connecting a bunch of seemingly random murders takes up the first half of the book.) The highlight of this novel is Archie's entertaining of a roomful of women, including getting them drunk enough to start spilling secrets.

Triple Jeopardy includes Home To Roost, Cop-Killer, and The Squirt And The Monkey. It also has what has to be the single ugliest cover of any book ever.

In Home To Roost, a man claiming to be an FBI informant in the Communist Party is poisoned at a dinner, and all those present there are suspects. Neither the FBI or the local cops are opening up as to whether he was a commie or an FBI agent, and it's up to Wolfe to crack that first.

In Cop-Killer, Archie admits two foreigners--one of which works at his barber shop--to help them evade deportation. He hides them in the brownstone while he investigates (and against Wolfe's initial objections). Unbeknownst to him, a murder--of a cop, no less!--has happened at the stop. Turns out the cop was investigating a murder, not deportation, but now that the foreigners have fled they are the prime suspect. Knowing that they are innocent but unable to tell the cops without revealing how he knows, both Wolfe and Archie hole up at the barbershop to solve the crime.

In The Squirt And The Monkey, Archie is unwittingly framed by a famous cartoonist for murder--well, someone framed him, anyway. This is a monkey mystery, but thankfully the monkey plays only a bit part. (Oh, spoiler alert: the monkey didn't do it.)

None of these short stories are memorable. They certainly aren't bad and have their share of amusement, but none of them are particularly well-crafted.

One thing that has become abundently clear at this point is Archie's status as a ladies' man.At this point, every mystery involves Wolfe stating to Archie, in effect, that since Archie is so good with women he should use his (um) abilities to persuade them to part with information. The aforementioned meal in Murder By The Book is a prime example: Archie literally woos about a half dozen women to the office with orchids, has Fritz feed them and get them drunk, and then takes them each out dancing, one at a time over the next few weeks, until enough information is dropped. It's fantastically funny, but it can get a little tedious, as if Archie's sexiness is enough to melt half the population into confession. 

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