Rex Stout, Chamoagne
© 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.