Thursday, July 12, 2018

Rex Stout, Black Orchids

Rex Stout, The Black Orchids
© Rex Stout, 1941, 1942
Viking Press, 1942
Bantam reprint 1994
Available from used booksellers

This appears to be the first “collection” of novellas, originally published in book form in 1942, and consisting of two cases: “Black Orchids” (first publication 1941) and “Cordially Invited To Meet Death” (1942).  Perhaps the strangest thing about these two stories. Given their publication dates, is that there is no mention, not even a suggestion, of the war.  The two preceding novels (Over My Dead Body and Where There’s a Will) and the immediately following pair of novellas (“Not Quite Dead Enough” and “Booby Trap”) either foreshadow the war or are directly involved with it.

And these are very strong entries in the series.  In “The Black Orchids,” Wolfe, having sent Archie to the Metropolitan Flower Show three days running, succumbs to an attack of horticultural jealousy, and (with Archie in tow) attends himself to see the black orchids that have been produced in Lewis Hewett’s greenhouse.  (Such things exist, although whether they existed in 1940, or were created by orchid fans after—because—this story was written, I do not know.)  And, of course, a murder intervenes.  The Rucker and Dill “booth” at the show features a pastoral scene, complete with two characters and a babbling brook.  And one of them—Harry Gould—is murdered, quite ingeniously (although I have doubts about the actual feasibility of the procedure).  Unbeknownst to the police, but known to Wolfe and Archie, there is a circumstance that involves Hewett.  And Wolfe’s price for extricating Hewitt is all three of the black orchid plants.

Archie displays an unusual amount of independence in this case, allowing Wolfe to get the first real chance to interrogate an important witness.  The denouement is both fairly startling and quite successful; justice is served, and Wolfe keeps his fee.

At the beginning of “Cordially Invited to Meet Death,” Archie tells us

That’s the first of the two cases.  That’s how he got the black orchids.  And what do you suppose he did with them?  I don’t mean the plants; it would take the lever Archimedes wanted a fulcrum for to pry one of those loose from him…I mean a bunch of the blossoms.  I saw them myself there on a corner of the casket, with a card he had scribbled his initials on, “NW.”  That was all.

I put this case here with the other one only on account of the orchids,  As I said, it’s a totally different set of people,  If, when you finish it, you think the mystery has been solved, all I have to say is that you don’t know a mystery when you see one.

It begins with a telephone call from Bess Huddleson, who wants Wolfe to come see her.  And you know how that plays out.  (In addition to his refusal to leave home, there had been a previous encounter with Huddleson.)  Later, Archie calls her back and invites he to the old brownstone; she accepts, and seeks to hire Wolfe to discover who is sending anonymous notes (not about her, but nonetheless unsettling) to her clients—she is the party arranger to the 1%--and make it stop.  Wolfe takes the case, and Archie is dispatched to Huddleson’s home to do the preliminary work.  And Huddleson dies; a small cut on her foot turns into a case of tetanus, and there is nothing anyone could do.  (In 1940, about 5 people per 1 million population—or about 700 people per year—died of tetanus; today, around 10 cases of tetanus are reported annually.)  And dying from tetanus is apparently an extraordinarily awful way to go.  (While we don’t get an in-depth of that, we learn enough to have no doubt of how nasty it is.)

The first question, of course, is whether it was just one of those things, or if someone helped things along.  And of course, it was murder.  Wolfe untangles the case based on a photograph and a 1” long cut on the ar m of one of the principals in the investigation.  Along the way, h receives some help on some culinary conundrums, corned beef hash being the most consequential.

These are both very well plotted mysteries, and the participants are more plausible and more interesting than is sometimes the case with Stout.  Possible the best of the collections of novellas.

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