Monday, June 21, 2021

Rex Stout, Prisoner's Base

Rex Stout, Prisoner’s Base
Copyright © 1952 Rex Stout
Bantam Books reprint 1992

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 ( 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.