26 August 2007

Mystery author # 32: Rex Stout – the Nero Wolfe series

Series detective: Nero Wolfe, adied by narrator Archie Goodwyn.

Title: Fer-de-lance
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1934
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: P.I.
Setting & time: New York and nearby cities, USA; 1930s (early to mid- 20th century timeless setting)

Story: A young woman asks Wolfe to find her missing brother. When he turns up murdered Wolfe is able to link his death to that of a college president who collapsed on a golf course. Wolfe then proceeds to investigate the case in order to collect a rich reward offered by that man's wife and tests his wits against a clever murderer.

Warning: minor SPOILERS follow.

Review and rating: I must start by admitting that I detest gimmick murder weapons in mysteries, and unfortunately this one has not just one, but two. The snake I can forgive, since this is a relatively old story and the snake probably had not become a cliche when it was written (although some might say it became so already in Doyle's The Adventure of the Speckled Band). I can, however, not forgive the poisoned dart, or rather the way it got into the victim. The mechanism used in the story is a novel way of putting a poisoned dart into someone, for sure, but it's gimmicky. I realise why it was necessary to forward the story as told and without it it would have been difficult to tie together the two murders, but like many gimmicks of this kind it is not by any means a sure-fire way for the killer to get his man. There are just too many things that can go wrong with a gimmick weapon like this, and for a murderer who is supposed to be as clever as the one in this book it just doesn't fit. I guess you might say it's too ingenious.

That said, I will say that I enjoyed the story, but not for the mystery element, which is barely average (I had it figured out before the halfway point of the mystery part of the story) but rather for the characters, their interactions and the dialogues between them.

Unfortunately, there is another element in the story that I not only detest but hate more passionately every time I see it used, a certain type of ending that readers of my previous reviews will have no problem guessing at. I therefore feel I can not give this book more than 2 stars.
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Title: Too Many Cooks
No. in series: 5
Year of publication:1938
Type of mystery: Murder
Setting & time: A spa near Philadelphia, USA; 1930s (early to mid- 20th century timeless setting)

Story: Nero Wolfe has made one of his rare excursions outside his house in New York to attend a gathering of master chefs (as the guest of one of them) and give a talk on American cuisine. When a chef who was hated by most of the others is murdered and another chef is arrested for the crime, Wolfe –out of a purely selfish motive – sets out to investigate the crime. It takes his considerable skills in human relations to get the necessary clues from material witnesses who have either been overlooked or dismissed as unimportant by the police, but once that is accomplished, he is all set to catch the killer.

Review: As in the previous book, it was the characters and their interactions and dialogues that were the most fun part of the reading rather than the mystery itself, which is weak, but at least there was no gimmick murder weapon. Wolfe's way with people is what solves the crime this time, as he skilfully and respectfuly extracts important evidence from people usually invisible in stories like these.

Rating: An interesting mystery where the solution hinges on showing respect. 2+ stars.
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Title: Three Doors to Death
No. in series: 16
Year of publication:1950
Type of mystery: Murder
Setting & time: New York and Westchester, USA; mid- 19th century timeless setting

This book contains three Nero Wolfe novellas.

In Man Alive, a young fashion designer asks Wolfe to track down her uncle who was supposed to have killed himself a year earlier, but whom she has seen twice recently. When he is found murdered and she is arrested, Wolfe uncovers a clever revenge plot.

In Omit Flowers, a chef friend of Wolfe's (one of the chefs from Too Many Cooks) asks Wolfe to prove the innocence of another chef who is believed to have murdered his employer's husband. It takes some clever thinking from both Wolfe and Goodwin before that case is solved.

In Door to Death Wolfe uncharacteristically leaves the comfort of his home to steal a master gardener from another orchid lover to fill in for his regular gardener who has had to take leave for an unspecified length of time. He has to use illegal means to get the man off the hook and into his orchid rooms when the man's fiancée is found murdered in the greenhouse.

Review: These three novellas are better mysteries than the two novels I reviewed above, probably because they are short enough that the middle doesn't start drooping or the plot become too threadbare. There is still enough funny dialogue between Wolfe and Goodwin, and some rather good puzzle plots. 3 stars.

Author review:
Many seem to agree that the best of the Nero Wolfe mysteries are the short stories and novellas, rather than the novels. I expect this is because in a short story or novella a thin plot doesn't need as much padding as it does in a full-length novel. In both the novels I read there was a lot of padding. Most of it is entertaining, but it's still padding.

It is the characters and dialogue that are the outstanding thing about the 3 books/5 stories I read, rather than the mystery elements. Archie Goodwyn is in some ways a more interesting character than Wolfe, who is basically a grumpy "thinking machine" detective who loves food and orchids. Archie is the sidekick, the muscle, but a smarter, funnier and more streetwise sidekick than, for example, Watson or Hastings, and he keeps surprising the reader. One gets the distinct feeling that he could, if he felt so inclined, solve mysteries on his own, but with very different methods than Wolfe would use. Their relationship is more like that between an uncle and nephew than a master and servant, and the result is lovely bantering dialogue, with Wolfe pretending to be offended by Goodwyn's irreverence, but secretly enjoying every minute. I am thankful to Stout for having given his narrator a sense of humour, because without it the stories would be quite forgettable.

The verdict is that while I am not going to start glomming these books, I would quite like to read more of them.

16 August 2007

Reading report for July 2007

I read 11 books in July. I could have read more, but the weather was good and I spent a couple of weekends travelling with my family.

One book was a reread, one of my perennials in fact. Three of the others were books I had started reading earlier and needed to finish to keep my promise to myself to finish some of the partially read books that are all over the place in my apartment.

Kate Adie: The Kindness of Strangers
Roald Dahl: Matilda
J.J. Marric: Gideon's Week
Sharyn McCrumb: The Rosewood Casket
John Mortimer: Rumpole of the Bailey
Terry Pratchett: Strata
J.D. Robb: Loyalty in Death
Georges Simenon: Maigret's Revolver
Rex Stout: Three Doors to Death and Fer-de-Lance

Reread:
Terry Pratchett: Good Omens