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!