Thursday, May 24, 2018

Rex Stout, Three for the Chair

Rex Stout, Three for the Chair
© Rex Stout, 1955, 1956
The Viking Press, 1977
Bantam Crimeline reprint, 1994
ISBN-13: 978-0553248135
Also available as an ebook

My reading has been spotty for the past few weeks; I currently have a couple of books in progress that are good enough to continue reading, but not good enough to keep me in my chair.  I have, however, continued reading a chapter or two of a Nero Wolfe novella before bed, and just finished Three for the Chair.

The first of the three novellas in the book, “A Window For Death,” involves the return (from self-exile in Canada) of Bert Fife to his home town of Mount Kisco, where his two brothers (David, a high school teacher; Paul, a real estate agent) and sister Louise (married to pharmacist Vincent Tuttle) still live.  Bert left after being acquitted of their father’s murder (by openng the bedroom windows during a snowstorm, where his father, suffering from pneumonia, was sleeping).  With him is his business partner and friend, Johnny Arrow.  Bert (and Johnny) are now rich men, having discovered a rich lode of uranium.  And Bert has come back to resolve some issues.

Bert comes down with pneumonia and dies in his hotel room after his family has left for the theater.  Paul (loudly and aggressively) alleges murder, and the family agrees to hire Wolfe to determine whether the police should be involved.  Wolfe does a neat bit of deduction on a seemingly inexplicable circumstance surrounding Bert’s sickbed, and, in the process solves both the long-ago murder and resolves this mystery. 

Diplomatic immunity looms large in “Immune To Murder.”  Wolfe is entreated by Undersecretary of State David Leeson to travel to a mountain cabin where two oil moguls, Leeson, and Ambassador Kelefy (there to negotiate a deal to exploit is country’s oil reserves) go fishing for trout.  Wolfe’s presence is precipitated by Kelefy’s request to eat a trout cooked by Nero Wolfe.  So the fishermen fish, but one of them doesn’t make it back alive.  The local DA seems fully aware that his hands are in one way tied.  At one point he says:

…I wish to convey the sincere thanks of myself personally, and of the people of the state of New York, to Ambassador Kelefy and his staff.  He and his wife and Mr. Spiros Papps of his staff are protected by diplomatic immunity from arrest or detention…

Later, Wolfe adds:  “Ambassador Kelefy, his wife, and Mr, Papps are beyond your reach even for inquisition, let alone indictment.”  So it’s abundantly clear that some of those in attendance are more special than others.  Oddly, perhaps, the clarity of the position early in the investigation has always made the denouement a bit of a letdown.  But watching Wolfe do his thing in such an un-Wolfean environment works nicely.

“Too Many Detectives” also finds Wolfe thrust into the outside world, along with Archie, both having been summoned to Albany for an inquiry into their involvement in wiretapping.  They, and four other PIs, one of whom is Dol Bonner (and one employed operative), are waiting to be interrogated.  At which point a murder is announced—the murder of a man who hired Wolfe to engage in wiretapping (and who gave Wolfe a phony name, too boot).  Before long, we learn that two of the other PIs in attendance were tricked into wiretapping someone by the same man, using virtually the same ploy (but a different name).  The other two are not so directly tied in.  Wolfe, incensed at having been arrested, convinces the other detectives to do some investigating remotely.  (Archie seems more worried than is warranted by Wolfe’s susceptibility to Bonner’s charms, I thought.)  While not everyone is happy with the outcome, all the good guys get to go home, cleared of murder and of illegal wiretapping.

Another strong group of stories, especially as we get to see Wolfe out of his element. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sara Woods, The Windy Side of the Law

Sara Woods, The Windy Side of the Law
Harper & Row, 1965
© 1965 Sara Woods
(Out-of-print, but readily available from used booksellers.)

The seventh mystery featuring Antony Maitland, an English barrister [and his wife Jenny, his uncle Sir Nicholas Harding (also a barrister; Maitland is attached to Harding’s chambers—law firm) and Geoffery Horton (frequently Maitland’s instructing solicitor)] finds Maitland faced with defending—by investigating heroin smuggling charges—his old friend Peter Hammond.  (As is almost always the case with Woods, the title comes from Shakespeare, in this case Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 4—and, yes, I had to look it up.[1]  Hammons has awakened in a relatively cheap hotel in London and has no memory of anything about himself or his life.  He finds Maitland’s name in a notebook, discovers his address, and sets out to find Maitland (who is, for all he currently knows, himself.)  He runs into Maitland outside Maitland’s home, and they soon return to the hotel, where two police officers are waiting for him.  (I should add that the desk clerk greets Hammond by name when they return.)

The officers want to ask him questions about a phone call they received alleging that Hammond was smuggled heroin into the country (he has just returned from a business trip to the far East).  And, lo and behold, there are two bricks of heroin in his luggage.  When he returns to his room following some initial questioning, he finds a body—of one of the hotel’s employees—in the bathroom.  And he calls Maitland for help.

At this point there is a rather important issue.  Is his amnesia real of feigned?  A pint that is never addressed in the book, Hammond must have known who he was when he registered at the hotel.  His name is in the hotel’s register (along with his signature) and the desk clerk knew his name.  All he has (apparently) done is sleep.  It’s no wonder the police do not believe in his amnesia; it’s not clear why Maitland is so immediately willing to.[2]

In the course of his investigation, Maitland talks with Hammond’s fiancѐ Nan, with the passengers on the ship on which Hammond returned to England (including another fiancѐ, Elaine), and his brother-in-law, for whom he worked (Hammond’s sister recently died).  Hammond, of course has (or claims to have) no memory of any of these people.  Not much progress is getting made, except that Maitland runs across a number of shady characters (one of whom he once defended).  But Maitland eventually reaches a conclusion (although I’m not sure we as readers have sufficient information to get there and all ends well (enough).

Unusually for a Maitland book, there are no courtroom scenes (which Woods handles extremely well).  The narrative moves well, and if more than usual is made of Maitland’s bad right arm, everything does seem to fit pretty well into place.  While this is not first-rate Woods, it is a good mystery and gives us additional insights into Maitland and his associates.  Well worth seeking out.

[1] The apparent meaning is that the speaker (Fabian) is urging his companion (Sir Toby Belch) to avoid any action that will bring attention to himself, as staying upwind from a deer you are hunting.
[2] Subsequently we get the suggestion that someone gave him a dose of scopolamine mixed with morphine, which is apparently true, at least in some cases (

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ed Gorman, Sleeping Dogs

Ed Gorman, Sleeping Dogs
Thomas Dunne Books/Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press
© 2008 Ed Gorman
ISBN 978-0-312-36784-8
Also available as a ebook

The first in the 5 book series featuring Devlin Conrad, political consultant for hire, who works for centrist-to-liberal candidates.  In this campaign, he is working for incumbent Illinois Senator Warren Nichols, and, as the campaign draws, Nichols is about to face off against his (very conservative) opponent, Jim Lake.  As the “debate” nears its mid-point, Nichols wobbles, and collapses on stage.  This does not bode well for his re-election; the immediate question is why he collapsed.  That is answered pretty quickly—he was drugged.  And the immediate assumption is that someone working for Lake is involved.

And that someone might be R.D. Greaves, also a political consultant, but one whose mode of operation is more like an assault than a campaign.  Conrad’s suspicion that Greaves is involved is hightened when Greaves gets in touch, alleging that he has a videotape of Nichols in a very compromising position with a woman to whom he is not married.  Which, as Conrad knows, is plausible—because Nichols has a well-deserved reputation in that respect.  What Greaves wants is money—and a lot of it.  But when Conrad shows up to make the payoff, Greaves is dead and the tape is missing.

The rest of the book is the intertwined story of keeping the campaign afloat, and Gorman handles the story with his usual deft touch.  If there’s one thing about the book I had a little trouble with, it was that the opening seemed to drag a bit as Gorman introduces us to the campaign team, the candidate, and the candidate’s wife.  Once I was past that, the story moved quickly and compellingly to its conclusion.

Dev Conrad’s position sets this up well as a series, for a couple of reasons.  First, the series will not be tied to a single location or to a narrow cast.  And second, because Conrad is an appealing narrator, aware of his own weaknesses and strengths.  And, if you are a political junkie, I think Gorman has presented the life of the campaign in a realistic manner.  (I’m an outsider, but it sure seemed that the political narrative was plausible.)  My only regret, really, if that there are only 5 books in the series.  I will miss Gorman’s writing.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Rex Stout, Three Men Out

Rex Stout, Three Men Out
Viking edition, 1954
Bantam editions 1955, 1991, and 1994
© Rex Stout, 1952, 1953
(Also available as an ebook)

Another collection of novellas.  This time, we have “Invitation to Murder,” “The Zero Clue,” and “This Won’t Kill You.”

“Invitation to Murder” finds Wolfe reluctantly accepting a retainer from Herman Lewent, to investigate…something.  Lewent is the ne’er-do-well son of a self-made multi-millionaire.  His father’s will left everything to his sister, including in the will a request that she consider his needs.  Which she has done to the tune of $1,000 per month (call it around $9,000 at today’s price levels).  Lewent has lived in Europe [and claims to have had, simultaneously, three mistresses, which Archie tends not to believe (“I gave him an eye and decided to believe nothing he said.  He wasn’t built for it.” P. 2)].  He has returned to the States following his sister’s death (for her funeral), discovered that her will had language requesting her husband (Theodore Huck) to consider Herman’s needs.

Now he has returned, having received a warning from Huck’s nephew, the Huck seems to be emotionally involved with one of the three women who work for him.  Herman fears…something…possibly that Huck will use his involvement to cut Herman off.  Or possibly that one of them killed his sister to be able to marry Huck.  Wolfe passes the buck to Archie, and Archie, knowing that Wolfe has no interest, but will be able to use Archie’s refusal to accept this case as a future excuse for sloth, reluctantly takes it on.  And, in short order, Herman Lewent is dead in his father’s house.

Archie uses a subterfuge to get Wolfe to venture forth, and Wolfe is able, of course, to think his way to the colution.

“The Zero Clue” is one of my favorites among the novella.  Leo Heller [1], math professor and expert in probability theory, has abandoned academia for what has become a lucrative job solving mysteries for people—for a fee.  Heller has called to ask for an appointment with Wolfe, because he has reason to believe that one of his clients or potential clients has committed a serious crime, and he wants help.  Archie knows Wolfe will never go for it, but he makes a call on Heller anyway, finding his (extremely well soundproofed) office empty, but his waiting room with clients or potential clients, full.  Shortly thereafter, Inspector Cramer arrives at the old brownstone asking what Wolfe was doing for Heller, displaying an envelope with 5 $100 bills, with Wolfe’s name on it.  Wolfe, somewhat impetuously, claims the money and dares Cramer to connect it, or him, to Heller’s death.  Cramer uses the arrangement of pencils found on Heller’s desk—claiming they were spelling out NW.  Wolfe, in order to keep the money and get Cramer off his back, agrees to look into it.  To begin with, he has Cramer bring all the people who were in Heller’s waiting room, and one more who had left as Archie was arriving, and undertakes to investigate.

For a reason I’ll omit, Wolfe has concluded that the number “6” is involved, and his interrogation of the—let’s call them—suspects focuses on that.  And the number 6 does pop up for every one of them.  Until, as a result of his questioning of Karl Busch (Archie describes him as “a Broadway smoothie, third grade), he realizes he was wrong.  Which we, of course, already knew from the novella’s title, although we don’t know what the clue is or what it means.  What I like so much about this story is Wolfe’s realization of his error, and why he recognized it.  Just a nice piece of detection, and a nice insight into Wolfe.

In “This Won’t Kill You,” Pierre Mondor (whom we all remember from Too Many Cooks) is visiting New York (staying with Wolfe), and has expressed a desire to see a baseball game.  The only baseball game available is game 7 of the World Series, with the Giants playing the Red Sox.  The owner of the Giants, a former client, is happy to come up with the tickets, and Archie, Mondor, and Wolfe are off to the Polo Grounds.  The game is a disaster, with a number of the Giants’ best players playing as if they’d been drugged.  Which we soon learn that have been.  The Giants’ owner requests Wolfe’s assistance (which he’s happy to give, as he is able to find something almost tolerable to sit on.  Not that he’s going to make much progress on an investigation while the game in in progress.

In short order, however, Archie discovers the corpse of Giants’ rookie Nick Ferrone and murder takes over.  Archie is, as it happens, in possession of a key piece of information (which he, of course, shares with Wolfe but not with Inspector Hennessey—we’re in the Bronx, not Manhattan, so no Cramer).  I don’t think it’s giving anything away to reveal that gamblers have, in fact, bribed someone to drug the players and make pots of money.  Archie’s info ties into that, and results in his leaving the Polo Grounds and into a confrontation which has the potential for a fairly horrible outcome.  This is another excellent outing in the annals, and Wolfe’s exposition to the Giants’ players and assorted others [2] of a fact he can’t explain is brilliant.

Overall, this is an excellent set of short mysteries; if it’s not my favorite collection of novellas, it’s right up there.

[1] I have always wondered if Heller were a re-working of Pro. Savarese in And Be a Villain, like Heller a math professor with an interest in statistic, which we wonders could be used to solve crimes.
[2] One of the others is Beaky Durkin, a former player now a scout; Ferrone was his discovery.  Every time I read this, I expect Archie of Wolfe to ask him if he knows Fred.