Tuesday ’Tec! Murder Is No Joke by Rex Stout

and four to go 2Dial Wolfe for Murder…

 

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are one of my favourite detective duos of all time, so it has been remiss of me to wait so long before including them on the blog. Rex Stout is one of those rare crime writers whose short stories are as good, if not better, than his full-length novels. The collection And Four to Go contains four novella length mysteries, including the one I’ve chosen for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

Murder Is No Joke by Rex Stout

 

Rex Stout
Rex Stout

Fiona Gallant wants to hire Nero Wolfe to look into the background of a mysterious foreign woman, Bianca Voss, who seems to have some kind of hold over Fiona’s brother Alec. Alec is a famous dressmaker who can command exorbitant prices for his designs so Wolfe, always reluctant to work except when a massive fee is involved, is disappointed to find that Fiona Gallant is offering a paltry $100. On the point of turning down the job, he reluctantly agrees to at least talk to Voss, since Fiona is convinced that he will immediately recognise her to be a bad lot – though his real reason for agreeing is typically Wolfeish, as Archie explains…

I do not say that the hundred bucks there on his desk in used twenties was no factor in Wolfe’s decision. Even though income tax would reduce it to sixteen dollars, that would buy four days’ supply of beer… But what really settled it was her saying “We shall see” instead of “We’ll see” or “We will see.” He will always stretch a point, within reason, for people who use words as he thinks they should be used.

Fiona dials Voss’ number and hands the phone over to Wolfe, with Archie listening in as usual. On hearing who the call is from, Voss starts to hurl insults at Wolfe but suddenly makes a noise somewhere between a scream and a groan and there is the noise of the phone crashing to the floor. Suspecting the worst, Wolfe is not surprised when he learns that Voss has been murdered.

Edward Arnold & Lionel Stander as Wolfe and Archie in the 1936 film
Edward Arnold & Lionel Stander as Wolfe and Archie in the 1936 film “Meet Nero Wolfe”

“Aha!” I thought immediately! Fiona dunnit with an accomplice and is setting Wolfe up to be her alibi. And I sat back smugly to wait to be proved right. My confidence was a little dented by the fact that Inspector Cramer immediately jumped to the same conclusion, because any regular will know about the unbreakable rule that Cramer is always wrong. (Which is a pity, since I so often come up with the same answer as he does.) And this case is no exception. While Archie is at the police station giving a statement, Wolfe reads in the newspaper that a fading actress has committed suicide, and his brilliant mind instantly sees that this puts a whole new complexion on the case. It’s not long before he has all the suspects gathered in his office for one of his famous denouements, where he gradually eliminates the suspects one by one until only the murderer remains…

Portrait of Wolfe by Kevin I Gordon
Portrait of Wolfe by Kevin I Gordon

There are so many things I love about these stories. Nero Wolfe is a fabulously eccentric creation, with his strict schedule, his orchid growing, his gourmandising, his beer, his profound laziness and most of all his brilliant mind. He’s more Mycroft than Sherlock really. And Archie, who narrates the stories, is no downtrodden or overawed sidekick. He accepts Wolfe’s mental superiority, but he’s the one with the physical skills and he plays as big a part in solving the crimes as Wolfe. They’re maybe not equal but they are interdependent. Oh, and Archie is also gorgeous, very smooth and a great dancer. *sighs*

Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton from
Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton from “A Nero Wolfe Mystery” TV series in the early 2000s

Stout’s plots are always beautifully executed. As in this one, there’s usually a specific clue on which the whole case turns, but even when it’s a bit obvious (to people like Cramer and me) you can be sure Stout will twist it in such a way that it doesn’t mean what you think it does. Given the short length of the novella form, he always manages to fit in a fairly wide cast of suspects and gives each of them a believable motive. The reader has to be paying attention to timings because alibi is usually a strong feature. And there’s lots of humour through Archie’s slick-talking narration and affectionately disrespectful descriptions of Wolfe’s little foibles, not to mention the fun of seeing Wolfe make a fool of poor Inspector Cramer…

“…and I didn’t say I have never known you to be wrong, Mr Cramer. I said I have never known you to be more wrong. That is putting it charitably, under provocation. You have accused me of duplicity. Pfui!”

If you haven’t come across Wolfe and Archie yet, I recommend them. And if like me you read them all years ago, time for a re-read! They’re still as much fun as they always were.

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a Poirot!
It’s a Poirot!

44 thoughts on “Tuesday ’Tec! Murder Is No Joke by Rex Stout

  1. Yes, I’m not surprised this one got a Poirot, FictionFan! Stout was such a good storyteller in my opinion. And I thought he always kept the series grounded through the interplay between Wolfe and Goodwin. It’s interesting too that this series stayed solid throughout; admittedly some outings are better than others, as is the case with virtually all authors. Still, a long and consistently good series is a rarity…

    • Yes, they’re a lot of fun these, but always with a proper plot at the heart of them. I think his decision never to really age them helped in this series – a bit like PG Wodehouse’s characters, they remained timeless to an extent.

    • They are! He kinda went out of fashion for a few decades – as usual I know of him because of BigSister’s massive library of pulp crime. But he seems to have made a comback – partly e-books and partly the most recent TV series, I suspect. (ahaH! seY!)

  2. I have read many a Rex Stout mystery . . .but no short stories!
    Will do! And saw for the first time stills of the old movies—funny-
    I don’t picture Wolfe or Archie that way, but I like them and like them
    better than the TV attempts in the 2000s. Thanks–

    • I think I actually enjoy the novellas more than the books – less complicated but still full of clues and red herrings and stuff. No, none of the pictures look like my own mental image of them either, but I suppose it’s quite hard to find an actor quite as huge as Wolfe! I haven’t seen the old films, and I’d probably have enjoyed the TV series more if I hadn’t read the books. But then that’s always the case…

  3. I have only read a few Nero Wolfe mysteries, but I love them! I am currently reading Fer-de-Lance right now. I really enjoyed the Timothy Hutton/Maury Chaykin series and that was what turned me onto the books. I need to read more, they are fabulous reads.

    • Oh, I’m glad to hear the TV series inspired you to go to the books! I quite liked it, but had such a definite image of both Wolfe and Archie in my head already that I doubt any actors could have lived up to my expectations fully. The great thing is that there’s loads of the books and novellas – and they’re nice, quick reads…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 🙂

  4. Oh, goodness. Another for the TBR! This sounds wonderful; you’ve given away just enough to get me hooked while allowing the book to remain a mystery, a delicate balance indeed.

  5. Your review is outstanding. I love that little dig about the dancing. I do love eccentric people…in stories. Living with them is another story! You have made an art of writing reviews.

    • I reckon Nero Wolfe is partly responsible for my own grammatical pedantry – he influenced me at an early age! Aha! I shall dig through the accumulated stock of upcoming reviews and see if I can tempt you then…

  6. I still love these – they are part of my “comfort library”, for when I can’t face anything new, but still want something literate. Well done for introducing them to a new generation.

    • Me too! Especially the novellas – something to read in one chunk that needs just enough concentration but not too much. Haha! ‘Tis the duties of us elders to pass our wisdom on to the tribe…

  7. Just this weekend I was explaining to my husband who Nero Wolfe and why he was a unique detective character. Now I really need to read more Wolfe mysteries!

  8. Okay, I haven’t had the pleasure of reading these yet, so it sounds like I need to add some to my To Be Read list. Thanks for the outstanding review, FF!!

    • Thanks, Debbie! I hope you like them if you do get around to reading some – they’re good light-hearted entertainment, lots of humour, but still well-plotted… 🙂

  9. I can’t believe that I’ve missed Wolfe and yet, by the sound of things he is just my kind of detective, particularly as he got a Poirot! I suspect I will be in agreement with Inspector Cramer far too often but hey…

    • It’s age-related, Cleo. They went right out of fashion for decades, but my older sister has a huge collection of pulp crime from the past and so when I was a teenager I read all kinds of things that had gone out of print. But they’re back now, both paper and e-books – I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy them!

  10. Look! The big fellow has a yellow shirt! Now that’s spicy.

    You know, I’ve never heard of them. But it seems very funny and good. And we all know you’re good at figuring out mysteries! You’re just giving yourself a bad rap, the sudden.

    Why do you suppose Rex keeps a beard?

    • Not only that, but he always wears yellow silk pyjamas in bed! (Why do I remember these things and yet forget all the serious stuff? *befuddled face*)

      They are good fun – I might add a few to your list. Archie is very like the Professor in many ways. *daydreams about dancing for a moment* Pfui! Am not!

      *laughs lots* It’s a great beard, isn’t it? I don’t believe he grew it – he must stick it on every morning. Probably keeps it in a cage overnight…

      • *laughing* Yellow silk pajamas! Wow! Very fancy. I wonder if he wears one of those hats to bed, too.

        Archie cannot be like the professor! The name disqualifies him first out. Not a chance in a million years, see. And real warriors don’t dance. Pfui! Love the new word.

        *laughs* In a cage with his parrot.

        • What hats?!

          According to Wiki, Archie means “genuine, bold, brave” – hmm! Sound Professorial to me! In fact, I may have to call you that from now on. It’s Scottish, you know, you know. Pfui! (It’s Wolfe’s word.) Just think of dancing as a form of warfare…

          *laughs* Poor parrot!

          • You know…one of those…floppy sideways ones that people sometimes wear to bed!

            *laughs* You know, I might not mind the nickname. I mean, it means lots of good things. Hopefully I can live up to it. Yes, but in dancing…you gotta get…real close.

            He probably wears it at night!

            • Oh, one of those! I was thinking maybe a Napoleon hat – or a Stetson.

              Archie it is then! A fine warrior name! Yeah, but sometimes you have to get close in sword-fighting too…

              *laughs lots* I find that image quite disturbing!

            • *laughs* Imagine trying to sleep in either of those!

              Only every so often, though. It still seems…a bit…you know… Yes, but not that close!!

              He probably looks good.

            • *laughs* I bet you are imagining it…

              Ok, Arch! I rather like it to be honest. Not Archibald which is a bit… you know… but Archie’s nice, or Arch. Oh, you don’t have to get that close in the cotillion though! Hand-holding’s as far as it goes – you could do that, couldn’t you?

              Hmm… you still can’t grow one!

            • Well, I can’t imagine the position you’d lay in. Probably end up getting a neck cramp.

              Arch! That’s great. Makes me think of the arch Titus built in Rome. Now that’s very warrior-like. I’m not sure…are you sure that’s it? *refrains from watching the cotillion*

              Oh rats! Please!

    • I think because Archie’s narration isn’t exactly deferential, Wolfe’s eccentricities don’t become too tiresome. And he’s perfectly functional – a bit like Holmes and his eccentricities, only Wolfe’s much lazier. Hope you enjoy them if you do get a chance to read some of them – they’ve given me loads of pleasure over the years… 🙂

  11. So glad you reviewed this! I also love Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series, particularly the A & E adaptations. I have found that reading them or watching the series with food helps. They talk about food soooooo much!

    Timothy Hutton was great as Archie. I had never heard of Maury Chaykin before I saw the series. He was perfect as Nero Wolfe.

    • I’m enjoying digging up these old ‘tecs and remembering how much pleasure they’ve given me. Haha! Yes, the books do that to me too – though sometimes not so much… in this one they have a hearty meal of corned beef hash and chicken livers. Hmm!

      I’ve only seen a few of the series but yes, I liked both the characters. They didn’t quite chime with my own expectations, but then adaptations almost never do. Still good though…

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