Saturday, August 28, 2021

Rex Stout, Champagne For One

 Rex Stout, Chamoagne For One
© Copyright 1958 Rex Stout
Bantam reprint 1996


This is one of my favorite, maybe in my top 10, of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books.  There is, however, one big issue (that I will get to).


Louise Robilloti, re-married after the death of her very wealthy husband Alfred Grantham, does not exactly carry on with his philanthropic endeavors.  But she does host, annually, a very special dinner.  One of his charities was Grantham House, a home for unmarried, pregnant young women.  They receive very good pre-natal and post-natal care, and assistance in finding work after the event.  Archie gets roped in (by Mrs. Robilloti’s nephew Austin Byne) to serve as a guest—4 unmarried men, 4 unwed mothers, and 4 members of the family (the Robillotis and Louise’s 2 children, Cecil and Celia Grantham).  Following a lavish dinner, the host, hostess, family members, and guests adjourn to the ballroom for champagne and dancing.


And one of the mothers, Rose Tuttle, decides to tell Archie that another of the mothers, Faith Usher, has with her a bottle of cyanide, and Rose is afraid that she plans to use it to end her life.  Archie promises to watch over her.  And, of course, Faith Usher dies of cyanide poisoning, presumably in a glass of champagne delivered to her by Cecil Grantham.  Everyone (well, almost everyone) is prepared to accept suicide as a verdict, but Archie is adamant that Usher did bot drop anything into the glass of champagne, or put anything into her mouth (except champagne).  So he’s in for it.  And the hosts and guests can’t just write it off because Archie refuses to accept the conclusion that Usher committed suicide, and the police are reluctant just to ignore Archie’s insistence that it was not suicide.


And one of the guests, Edwin Laidlaw (a wealthy, reformed rake) hires Wolfe to find out what really happened.  He has several reasons for seeking Wolfe’s services, but high on his list is to prevent it coming out that he is the father of Faith Usher’s child.  And he has enough money to make the job worthwhile to Wolfe.  And, from Archie’s point of view, to prove that he’s right, that Usher was murdered.  Although, initially, it seems likely to be impossible, or next to it, to prove that it was murder and to identify the murderer

.

One of the reasons I am drawn to this book is that it is, in my opinion, the best depiction of women in the entire series.  While the women are largely shown as more or less dependent in one way or another, only Louise Robilloti is depicted negatively (and much of that stems from her physical appearance on the one hand and her snobery on the other).  Not only are all four of the young women/mothers depicted in a generally positive way, Celia Grantham is also treated positively. 


But…as the investigation unfolds, we learn that Faith Usher’s mother, Elaine Usher, had an affair with Alfred Grantham, and that Faith is one of the outcomes on that affair.  And here I had a problem.  Assuming that someone has a motive for murder, I have always thought that the more likely subject would have been Elaine Usher.  While it would, obviously, have been impossible to get Elaine Usher into the dinner party, she seems to me to have been the most likely murderee.  The denouement is handled well, however, and the discovery of how the murder was committed is very well handled. 


In my opinion, well worth reading—and re-reading.

 

Friday, July 9, 2021

Raymond Postgate, "Somebody At the Door"

 Just in case you thought I only read books that turn out to be good:

Raymond Postgate, "Somebody At the Door"
Originally published 1943
Reprint in the British Library Crime Classics series2017

I have been a fan of the British Library Crime Classic series from its inception; I've bought and read with pleasure a large number of them (20+, I'm estimating). Bit I have begun to wonder whether the series is running out of high quality material.

The last half dozen or so that I've read have been pedestrian at best, and the one I just finished--Raymond Postgate's "Somebody At the Door" (originally published in 1943)--was at best mediocre (starting with the title which actually doesn't even make sense, given the story). There is a 70+ page section (30% of the book) that provides unnecessary--irrelevant, really--backstory, for example. And the ending seems tacked on just to come up with a conclusion. One oft he least rewarding books I have ever read.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Rex Stout, Prisoner's Base

Rex Stout, Prisoner’s Base
Copyright © 1952 Rex Stout
Bantam Books reprint 1992
ISBN0-553-24269-5


A young and attractive young woman shows up at Nero Wolfe’s house, carrying luggage.  Wolfe is not available—he’s tending to his orchids.  The young woman, Pricilla Eads (as we late discover when her guardian, Perry Helmar, shows up, seeking to hire Wolfe to find her) wishes to remain secluded until her 25th birthday has passed.  Also, as we learn from Helmar when he is seeking to hire Wolfe to(for $10,000—roughly $150,000 in inflation-adjusted terms), on her 25th birthday his guardianship will terminate and she will come into control of a fortune, including a majority ownership of a textile design and manufacturing firm (SoftDown).


Wolfe chooses not to reveal her presence in his house, and persuades Helmar to let him consider whether to take the case until the next morning.  He then confronts Eads, saying that she has a choice:  Pay him $10,000 keep her hidden until her 25th birthday, or leave the brownstone.  Should she leave, he tells her, he will call Helmar the next morning to accept the job he has been offered.  (He also points out that all she has to do is go home and phone Helmar.)


She leaves, and is found the next morning in her apartment, dead—strangled.  And her long-time maid, Margaret Fomos (who does not live in) has been found, also strangled, with her key to Eads’ apartment missing.  It’s not hard to reach the conclusion that Fomos was killed ti get the key, and that the same person has killed them both.  Archie tries to convince Wolfe to investigate the Eads’ murder; Wolfe refuses.  And Archie takes it upon himself to find the killer.


Complications ensue.  Archie crashes a board of directors meeting (identifying himself as a detective); before he has accomplished much, the cops show up and arrest him of a charge of impersonating a police officer.  After some back-and-forth, Archie overhears Wolfe—who was also arrested—describing the events to the police higher-ups, and announces that he does have a client—Archie Goodwin.  Like it or not, Wolfe will investigate the murders.


One of the complications has to do with Eads’ marriage, to Eric Hagh, several years earlier, in Caracas, Venezuela.  She has apparently signed an agreement to share equally any assets she inherits with Hagh.  Which means millions, as of her 25th birthday.  And Hagh has hired a lawyer who has informed Helmar that 50% of Eads’ SoftDown stock should be, as of her 25th birthday, when she formally inherits it, should be transferred to him.


So we have a tangle.  And there is one of Stout’s best-ever scenes.  Wolfe manages to Helmar get the four highest executives of SoftDown to come to his office to discuss the situation.  He asks them to—no, let me quote Wolfe:


I say to you…there is a suspicion current that you had something to do with the murder of Pricilla Eads, and also of Margaret Fomos, and even that you may have actually committed those crimes with your own hands.  What have you to say to remove or discredit that suspicion?


The responses of three of the four executives (Jay Brucker, president; Viola Duday, assistant secretary to the corporation; Oliver Pitkin, corporate treasurer; and Bernard Quest, VP) are among the best set pieces I have ever read in a mystery novel.  (Only Brucker’s is uninteresting.)  And all four of their “voices are distinct and captivating.  These are at the very least among the best conceived characters in any of the books.


Saul Panzer also plays a pivotal role in identifying the murderer.  As is generally the case with the continuing PI characters (excluding Archie) in the saga, we hear what Saul has discovered, but we don’t see or hear him actually doing the work.  (I’ll admit to wishing that Stoup had gotten around to writing a book about Saul as a detective.)


The narrative (the plot, if you will) is among the best Stout ever wrote.  The people involved in this particular situation are well, eve, brilliantly conceived and presented.  It’s the best conceived and presented cast of characters, I think, in the entire body of work.  The events leading up to the murders, and the detective work leading to the climax, are as good as anything Stout ever wrote.  It’s not the book that has moved me most (that would be A Family Affair).  It’s not the book that deals with the weightiest issued (The Doorbell Rang).  But it is very nearly the best thing Stout wrote.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Rex Stout, Too Many Clients

 Rex Stout, Too Many Clients
© Copyright 1960 (and probably renewed by the Estate of Rex Stout)
Bantam Books reprint 1994
ISBN 0-553-25423-5

I’ve read Too Many Clients many times, and have written about it more tan once.  Having just re-read it, I feel obliged (to myself; everyone else in the world should feel free to ignore this) to write about it again.  So here I go.

Thomas Yeager, (one of?) the VPs of the Continental Plastics corporation has been murdered, his body found underneath a tarp at street construction site, n a relatively undesirable part of Manhattan.  Wolfe winds up with three clients:  The Perez family (property managers living in the basement apartment of a residential building near the where the body was found); Yeager’s wife (who knew about his extramarital activities); and the corporation at which Yeager had worked.  The first discovery is that Yeager had owned the building in which the Perez family lived and worked.  He had constructed, on the top floor, what can best be described as the setting for serial extramarital activities.  (There’s some evidence that the activities involved Yeager and a fairly large number of women,)  Keep in mind that this is in what would generally be referred to as a slum.  And Yeager was killed there.


Wolfe and Goodwin manage to discover the murderer.  But what I want to discuss is something entirely different.


Yeager, one would think, would be at pains to keep both the place and the activities.  But consider:  The top floor had to be essentially rebuilt (walls removed; windows as well; an expensive, unpickable lock installed on the basement level.  And an expensive elevator with only 2 stops—the basement and the bower.  Leave aside the cost.  This would have taken a fair amount of time and a fairly large number of constructions.  The residents of the building, and of the surrounding neighborhood, might not know exactly what was being done.  But they would certainly know that something was in the works.  This would certainly attract the attention of the residents and, I would think, of the neighborhood as a whole.  They would wonder who had done this, and why.  They would be curious about the people entering and leaving.  So it is likely that people would be watching, and, if any of t hem had cameras (Kodak Brownies were relatively cheap, it’s likely that someone would be taking photos.  One source (Kodak Eastman: Brownie Flashmite 20 Price Guide: estimate a camera value (collectiblend.com)) puts the price at $15 in the early 1950s, so maybe not so cheap.  But, still, it only takes one…)


Now, to be sure, Yeager might not have been all that concerned about people in the neighborhood knowing something was going on, or even the highly likely knowledge about what was going on.  And the women who made the trip to this apartment building in a slum might not have felt all that insecure (although I would suspect that they would have called for a cab prior to leaving, rather than hailing a cab at the curb.) 


After the Yeager’s murder, things might have changed.  His picture would have appeared in the papers.  Some people in the neighborhood might have recognized this visitor (Yeager).  While most of Yeager’s guests would be anonymous, at least one (Meg Duncan, a well-known actress) might well have been noticed and identified by someone.  Among those recognizing Yeager as the murdered man, someone would likely have called the police.  And then everything would have played out differently.  The police would have discovered Yeager’s ownership of the building, and of the nature of the top floor (and, by the way, how is it that Sgt. Stebbins managed to overlook the presence of an elevator?).  Yet there is not even a suggestion that anyone in the neighborhood noticed or cared.  No suggestion that any of the residents—except the Perez family, and Stebbins came to see them because their daughter had been murdered, not because the bower was discovered—had even been asked if they had seen the body being dumped in the hole.  (I would have thought that canvassing the neighborhood would have been automatic in any event, in an effort to determine if anyone had seen Yeager’s body being dumped.)


A secondary issue is the choice of a slum to begin with, so I’m going to touch on that as well.  Yeager bought the entire building (if memory serves, a 3  or 4 story building, likely with 4 apartments to a floor, so probably 12 apartments (excluding the Perez family’s quarters in the basement).  Yeager’s alternative, it seems to me, would have been to purchase a single co-op (or condo) unit and have it remodeled to suit his needs.  I can’t believe that such a choice would have been more expensive than buying an entire apartment building and remodeling as we know it was.  Furthermore, his guests would not face the same (perhaps small) risks to their personal safety were they to visit him in a mid-town residence (even buying a small single family house in the Village couldn’t have been that much more expensive, even if it needed to be remodeled).  Remodeling a co-op unit wouldn’t attract as much attention as would remodeling a unit in a slum.  The attention that might be paid to his visitors would also probably not have attracted as much neighborhood attention.  So the risk associated with the slum location must, for Yeager, and possibly for his guests as well, have been part of the attraction.  To me, that seems to be a stretch, but I still always find myself why selecting a more obviously unusual site is something that Yeager would have chosen.


I have two additional bones to pick, about the motive of the murderer and about Archie’s reaction to the fate of Dinah Hough, but I’ll leave that for another day.  And that discussion will involve revealing the identity of the murderer, and the murder’s motive.


Having said all that, I will say that, if one accepts the premise, both Goodwin’s actions (with one exception) and Wolfe’s deductions make Too Many Clients a fairly compelling read.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Josh Pachter (ed.), The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe

 Josh Pachter (ed.), The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe
Copyright © 202  Rex Stout Literary Properties
Open Road Integrated Media
ISBN 978-1504-059-862


I have found that, generally, compilations like this tend to be disappointing, either because the concept doesn’t work or because the individual stories don’t measure up.  And, being something of a Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe devotee, I was inclined to be skeptical.  But, I am happy to be able to say, this was, as Mr. Wolfe would have said, satisfactory.


The book is divided into four sections:
“Tribute in Triplicate: Introductions” (3 introductions)
“Part I: Pastiches” (6 shorter pieces in which Wolfe appears explicitly or implicitly as a character))
“Part II: Parodies” (7 longer pieces whose main characters are more-or-less homages to Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe)
“Part III: Potpourri” (5 shorter, unclassifiable pieces)


Speaking solely for myself, I found the stories in Part II to be the most interesting and best realized, with the material in Parts I and III being interesting and readable, but not as interesting.  So I’m going to focus mostly on Part II. 


The seven parodies are, as I have already suggested, really homages.  In all seven, there is a detective whose adventure is chronicled by his employee/assistant in the detective business.  In several of them, Wolfe (and Archie) are off-stage presences.  Of the seven, a few really stand out.  For example, “The Case of the Disposable Jalop, (by Mack Reynolds)” in which three scientists (Clarke, Aldiss, and Brunner—and if you have read much SF, you’ll know where those guys came from)  need is assistance in recovering a rather remarkable motor vehicle in a world that reminded me of Frederik Pohl’s story “The Midas Plague.”  It’s a world in which work as we know it  has more-or-less been eliminated, but greed continues.  They want to hire him to find yet another scientist, named Azimov and another guy named Asimov(hint, hint).  And a secretary named Mata Hari Le Guin.


And there’s Lawrence Block’s story of a Christmas party (“As Dark As Christmas Gets)” in Wolfe is hired to recover a stolen manuscript written by Cornell Wolrich that appears to have been stolen from a mystery bookstore in Manhattan.  Our narrator is Chip Harrison, and our detective is Leo Haig (formerly a breeder of tropical fish for a living, but, as a result of a large legacy, a detective—who wants to be so successful that Wolfe invites him to dinner).  (They also appear in novels by Block)  Of course you know exactly which mystery bookstore in Manhattan this is based on.  Right?


Loren Estleman’s contribution features Claudius Lyon (chronicled by a small-time con man trying to go straight, Arnie Woodbine),a detective (unlicensed) who works for free, to avoid having to get a license.  Lyon is “hired” to find a past winner (Noah Ward) of a prestigious poetry award, in order to be able to include the poet’s prize-winning poem in an anthology.  In the course of things, they run afoul of one of the nastier members of the NYPD’s finest.  The solution is what one might call poetic justice.  (Or maybe not.()


Dave Zeltserman [who is, for some reason, not indexed on SYKM, but can be found at a Wikipedia entry (Dave Zeltserman - Wikipedia)] has written a series of stories featuring a wealthy sometime PI named Julius Katz and his virtual assistant.  This is considerably darker (and with higher stakes) than the others.  Katz is in imminent danger of being killed, as his Boston townhouse has been bombed.  And that is aa consequence of his being paid being paid a $20 K retained by the dog food king, Allen Luther.  Someone is apparently trying to kill him, and he wants Katz to make sure that, should he be killed, the perp is caught. 


Michael Bracken presents us with what might be termed the last days of his take on the  duo in “The Possibly Last Case of Tiberius Dingo.”  Dingo is old, in failing health (the office has been turned into a bedroom), and, basically, waiting to die.  His aging assistant (Jughead, which is a nice touch) has arranged for Ruth Entemann to seem Dingo (he declines to take her case (she thinks she’s being stalked, but Jughead has his ways).  Dingo winds up in the hospital.  Jughead pursues the stalking case, and something in Ruth Entemann’s past seems to be involved.


The final section had, for me, somewhat less interest—except for Robert Lopresti’s take on what it might have been like to live next door to Wolfe.  What with one thing (machine gunners destroying the greenhouse) and another (J. Edgar Hoover turning up at the wrong brownstone), I could see that Wolfe might be less than the perfect neighbor, even if it could also lead to Interesting times.


I enjoyed this book a lot.  I think that any fan of Nero Wolfe (or Archie Goodwin) would also.


Thursday, May 13, 2021

13 May 2021

As sunset draws near,
I look up and see a tree
Beginning to bud

13 May 2021

 



Monday, May 10, 2021

Mark Kurlansky, Ready for a Brand New Beat

Mark Kurlansky. Ready for a Brand Ne Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” became the Anthem for a Changing America
Copyright © 2031 M rk Kurlansky
 Riverhead Books/Penguin Books
ISBN 978-59448-722-4


I finished reading Mark Kurlansky’s Ready for a Brand New Beat, his attempt to convince us (and, perhaps,, himself)of the cultural and political importance of a pop-rock song, “Dancing in the Street.  Composed by a team of Motown songwriters (Marvin Gays, Willian “Mickey” Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter) and initially released by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.  Clocking in at 2:46, it peaked at #4 on the pop charts and was #17 on the 1964 year-end rankings according to Billboard.  Looking at the 1964 year-end list, I think there is a case to be made for it (although I personally would pick The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” which Billboard has at #20.  (It’s clearly a better song than any of the top 100 from 1963, although Sam Cooke’s “It’s Another Saturday Night” is terrific.  I’d put two songs from 1965 ahead of it-The Rolling Stones, “Satisfaction (#3 for the year) and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” (#41). Still, “Dancing in the Street” is a remarkable song and deserves the praise it gets.
Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1964 - Wikipedia
Martha & The Vandellas "Dancing in the Streets" - YouTube

Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1963 - Wikipedia
Sam Cooke - Another Saturday Night (Official Lyric Video) - YouTube


Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1965 - Wikipedia
[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction - YouTube
Bob Dylan - Like a Rolling Stone (Audio) - YouTube


But Kurlansky wants to do much more than assert the musical merits of “Dancing in the Street.”  His thesis is that “Dancing…” is much more than a great rock song.  It is, he argues, a song whose origins (consciously or not) come out of the political and civic unrest that marked the summer of 1964 and that it continued to resonate in the summers that follow.  An important part of this part of the story is white flight generally and the very real destruction of Detroit as a major American city.  He also, I think, wants to make a case for the importance of Motown (and by extension Berry Gordy) in changing the musical world and providing the soundtrack to the social and political changes that became clear in 1964 and shaped a narrative that helped define the ‘60s.


Detroit got its nickname (The Motor City) because the growth of the population, and the wealth (largely of whites) were driven by the automobile industry.  IN 1880, the population of Detroit was about 116,000.  It nearly triples—to 285,000—in 1900, nearly doubled between 1900 and 1910, doubled again by 1920 (now over 900,000), and, although the city’s growth slowed, it doubled again by 1950 (reaching 1,8 million,  .That, again, is the city of Detroit.  After 1950, the city has shrunk,, almost as fast as it grew; the 2020 Census puts the city’s population at 670,000.  The Detroit metropolitan area has continued to grow.  At 3 million (about 1.1 million outside the city limits) in 1950 (the earliest official data), it’s now at 5.3 million (about 4.6 million outside the city limits.  The city is majority Black, while the suburbs are mostly white.


Kurlansky doesn’t treat this population changes in much detail, although he does sketch the outlines.


The Motown story is actually pretty amazing on its own, without any of the political weight that Kurlansky adds to it.  The incredible blossoming of talent, and the ability of that talent to break out of being only a niche of the music business—the breakthrough of Black music and performers into the pop charts is an important story, and he tells it well.  And telling it requires making it clear that Gordy made household names out of an extraordinary group of talented men and women.  Here, he makes it clear than Gordy did not treat his talent very well, leaving some of the most talented basically in poverty while he got rich (at least for a while).


But Kurlansky wants to do much more than tell the story of Motown and the story of a song.  He wants to convince us that the song was a catalyst for the rise of a political movement—a galvanizing force behind at least part of the civil rights movement.  Especially of the Freedom Rides and the struggle to force states in the south to allow Blacks to register and vote.  The outlines of the events themselves are pretty well handled, and, if that part of the struggle obviously continues (with 30or more states now trying to make voter registration and actual voting harder—and not just in the south).  I don’t think he makes his case.  The argument is that “Dancing in the Street” was heard as (whether it was intended to be heard this way is a much harder case) a call to activism, even to violence.  That “dancing in the street” was not—was not thought to be by political activists in 1964 and later to be a nice dance song, but was, indeed, a call to revolution.  He cites a few activists who claim (if only in hindsight) to see it that way.  But it reads as a stretch, not as an evident truth.


The strangest part of the book is his discussion of the huge number of recorded versions of the song (including, somewhat weirdly, David Bowie and Mick Jagger doing a duet).  I think he’s trying to make a claim for the continued vitality of the song.  And it has been covered and recorded over and over again.  Including a number of weird attempts (the Mamas and Papas?  I don’t recommend it.  Van Halen?  Don’t recommend that either.  The Grateful Dead?).  I can’t find even an estimate of the number of recorded versions, but it seems to be in the hundreds.


I was absorbed by the book, even as I argued with it frequently.  “Dancing in the Street” is a seminal achievement in rock literature.  Bu in the end it’s just a great song.  It did not change the world.  It did not even, really, change the music business.  It probably did not make the singers and players rich.  But it was an important moment for Motown, making the label ubiquitous and helping to make Berry Gordy rich.