Rex Stout, Prisoner’s
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.