Friday, December 29, 2017

An extended rant on a Nero Wolfe novella

Rex Stout, "The Next Witness," Three Witnesses (1956)
Reprinted by Bantam in 1994

I’ve been reading (very slowly—2-3pages a night) some of the Nero Wolfe novellas before going to sleep. And a few days ago I started re-reading (for at least the 15th time) “The Next Witness.”  And I’ve spotted something that seems, well, wrong.

On p. 13 of the Bantam reprint (1994), Archie tells Wolfe (and us):  “His [Leonard Ashe’s) story is that a man phoned him…and said if Ashe would meet him at the Bagby place on Sixty-ninth street he thought they could talk Marie out of it, and Ashe went on the hop, and the door to the office was standing open, and he went in and there she was with a plug cord around her throat…” 

Two pages later, Wolfe and Goodwin arrive at the apartment building where the office is.  And, “In the vestibule I pushed the button that was labeled Bagby Answers, Inc., and when the click came I opened the door and led the way across the crummy little hall to the stairs and up one flight,’

So here’s the issue:  There was, apparently, no one in the office (alive) to buzz Ashe through the locked door in the vestibule—if Ashe was telling the truth.  This is not a problem for the prosecution, of course—Ashe buzzed, Marie Willis let him in, and he killed her.  But it is, or should be, a problem for Wolfe.  Assuming Ashe is innocent,--that he found Willis already murdered--how did he get through the door in the vestibule?  Had someone propped the door open?  If so, wouldn’t Ashe have mentioned that at some point?  In short, if Ashe was innocent, how did he get in and to the office?

Now, I have read this story a lot, and this never occurred to me before (I can be a little slow).  But it for sure should have occurred to Wolfe or Archie or to whoever was editing the story for publication.  It can be fixed with addition of three words.  Instead of “…and the door to the office was standing open…”, if we have “…and vestibule door and the door to the office were standing open…”, there’s no problem.  My point, just to be clear, is not that this problem can’t be easily resolved, it’s that, apparently, no one realized that it needed to be resolved.

But then there’s the second problem.  If Leonard Ashe is not guilty, who is guilty?  Or, more precisely, who can we prove to be guilty?  And here the answer seems to be:  “No one.” 

What do we need to do to prove someone guilty?  The classic answer, of course, focuses on motive, means, and opportunity:
Does this person have a motive for killing the victim?
Did this person have, or have access to, the means by which the murder was accomplished?
Did this person  have the opportunity to commit the murder?
Well, where do we stand with respect to all this?

Guy Under, Helen Weltz, Alice Hart, Bella Velardi, and Clyde Bagby all plausibly have a motive, and for all of them, it’s the same motive—to prevent the exposure of a blackmailing scheme operated by and through the answering service.  Everyone in the world had access to the means to commit the murder, assuming access to the apartment.  (The means was strangulation using one of the switchboard cords.

But what about opportunity?  Can we prove that Person A (B, C, D…) had access to and was present at the scene of the crime when the murder was committed?  Well, here we have a problem.  Unger and Weltz share an alibi—they were, according to them, together (in the company of Ralph Ingalls and his wife) on a boat.  Hart and Velardi share an alibi—they had borrowed Weltz’s car and were on the shore in New Jersey, cooling off (and presumably Weltz supports their statement about borrowing her car).

But Bagby has no alibi.  No one says, or can say, that he was at home (or anywhere else) when the murder was committed.  Clearly he had access to the building and the apartment—it was his business.  He (presumably) says he was not there.  But he could have been.  But can the police prove that he was there?  Did any of the tenants of the building see him entering or leaving at about the time of the murder?  As far as we know, the answer to that seems to be, “No.”  We might suspect Bagby, but I see no way to prove his guilt.  If he has a good lawyer, my guess is he would walk, guilty or innocent, the proof of guilt is insufficient (unless the police can turn up a witness placing him at the scene.)

Which, oddly enough, brings us back to Leonard Ashe. He has a motive (of sorts; I don’t think it was a particularly powerful motive).  If he was at the apartment, then he had access to the means of murder.  And he was there, so he clearly had the opportunity to commit the murder.  But…if he was the murderer, why didn’t he just quietly walk away?  Why shout for the police?  In fact, for me, that he did not sneak away, that he shouted out the window for the police is the strongest evidence of his innocence.  But the fact remains that the prima facie case against Ashe is stronger than the case against anyone else. 

Wolfe’s entire argument comes down to this:  Someone else (perhaps many someones) had a stronger motive.  But that is not—and should not—be enough to convict that “someone else.”.
(An addendum to this:
Wolfe was not called to testify in Clyde Bagby's trial, which, we are told, ended in a conviction.  But...

It's unclear to me what Wolfe could have testified to in any event. He *deduced* the existence of the blackmail plot, but his deductions are not evidence. Helen Weltz *confirmed* his deductions, but he can't testify to what she said (unless she is the defendant; I suspect the DA would give her immunity in exchange for her testimony); from an evidentiary point of view, what she told him is hearsay. Oddly, Bagby's defense lawyer could rationally subpoena him to testify to Ashe's efforts to get Marie Willis to eavesdrop, in an attempt to rebut the case against Bagby. The defense lawyer could (and, obviously, would) avoid any mention of Wolfe's deductions.

As far as I can tell, the only useful new evidence the police or the DS's office could find is someone who could place Bagby in or immediately around the apartment or building at the relevant time. That might give Bagby something to explain, and it would help us fill out the motive/means/opportunity trilogy. But Ashe's presence actually in the apartment/office at ((or around) the time of the murder seems to me like a pretty good defense...I actually don't see how a jury could vote to convict...)

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