Friday, November 30, 2018

Rex Stout, Three Doors to Death

Rex Stout, Three Doors to Death
Original hardcover edition, The Viking Press, 1950
Bantam/Crime Line paperback reprint, 1995)
© Rex Stout, 1949, 1950
ISBN-13: 978-0553251272

The fourth compilation of novellas (“Man Alive;” “Omit Flowers;” and “Door to Death”) featuring Nero Wolfe.  A review cited on the Wolfe Pack website tells us “I suppose I could spend some time detailing the plots of these three novellas, but when it comes right down to it they are formulaic, but my, what a formula.  I can’t really disagree with that assessment, but, then, I think it could apply to almost any series character, and perhaps especially in mystery fiction.  I would say that this is not the strongest of the novella collections, but all three are taut, readable, and have some notable points.

I’m going to start with the third story, “Door to Death,” because it has a couple of features I really want to write about.  The plot, briefly, if this:  Wolfe’s full-time greenhouse man, Theodore Horstmann (who has the primary responsibility of caring for Wolfe’s vast collection of orchids) has left, at least temporarily, to attend on his gravely ill mother.[1]  So Wolfe needs to find a replacement, again, at least temporarily.  He has heard very good things about Andy Krasicki, who is employed by Joseph Pitcairn (a wealthy man of no apparent occupation).  Wolfe has written, and phoned, to no avail.  So he and Archie head for Westchester to try to convince Andy personally.  Arriving, they learn that Andy has already mailed a letter saying yes.  So the trip is for nothing?  Well, no.  Dini Lauer, a practical nurse caring for Mrs. Pitcairn, with whom he had fallen in love, and whom he had, only the night before persuaded to leave her job and marry him, is found dead.  In the greenhouse, poisoned by ciphogene gas (a fumigant).  And the police settle on Andy as the most likely killer.

So Wolfe has to prove that he did not commit the murder, which involves sneaking back onto the property and into the greenhouse, and, in a confrontation with the family, disclosing the murderer. 

So what about this is of any special interest?  For me, two things.  First, the uncertainty of whether Theodore is returning.  From the first time I read this story, more than 40 years ago (it was originally published in 1949), I have wondered whether Wolfe had decided to write Theodore out of the household and bring Andy in as a replacement.  And I have concluded that he did think about it, but decided not to.  And I think he decided not to because, a characters, Andy and Archie might have been too similar (both young, handsome, smart, competent, attractive to and attracted by women).

And second, well, it relates to an aspect of Stout’s characterization of some of his male characters (and this pre-dates the Wolfe saga).  Stout’s early novels often (for example, in Forest Fire and How Like a God) featured young (or not-so young) men who had psychosexual hangups, and this occasionally flares up in the Wolfe stories (The League of Frightened Men; Too Many Clients).  And he does not, in my opinion, handle those characters very well.

Whatever my reservations, this is a nice piece of work.

Now, briefly, the other two stories.

In “Man Alive,” a noted fashion designer disappears and is presumed dead (with a rather improbable suicide); he returns to NYC and his niece, who is beginning to fill the void caused by his disappearance, gets arrested and asks Wolfe to prove she didn’t do it (by finding the real killer, of course).  As it happens, all the likely suspects were together, continuously, during the time the murder was committed, and she was not—she was on the scene.  It’s not just her uncle who has been thought to be dead.  The woman he loved is dead (no questions), and her husband, the other partner in the fashion company also seems to have committed suicide. 

Wolfe clears it up neatly.

In “Omit Flowers,” we are thrust into the question of who’s going to run the Ambrosia chain of restaurants (part of this reminded me of HoJo—Howard Johnson hired a classically trained chef, Jacques Pepin, to run the menu design for the restaurants and to oversee the operation of the kitchens).  The founder, H.R. Landy has died.  Some years before he hired Virgil Pompa, a renowned chef, to oversee the culinary side of the business.  Landy has died (with no issues); his widow has remarried (to Floyd Whitten), and has decided to have her new husband take over the business end of things.  Pompa, who wants to retire, is persuaded to stay on through the training period.  And, during one of the training sessions, Whitten and Pompa have a shouting match, Pompa storms out.  Mrs. Whitten follows him to try to calm him down, and discovers her adult children in the downstairs dining room.  She asks Pompa to wait in the living room (he does, for a while, and then leaves) while she beats some sense into the kids.  And Whitten is foud with a knife in his back.  The solution to the murder fairly screams at the reader (I think, anyway), but things happen that might make the obvious solution not so appealing.  Maybe one of the weakest of the novellas, which is not to say it’s badly done.

[1] We do not discover, in this story, or subsequently, whether she recovered.

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