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Series: Nero Wolfe #1
Author: Rex Stout
Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars
Maria Maffei, a family friend of one of Wolfe’s free-lance men, offers to hire Wolfe to locate her missing brother Carlo, a metalworker. Wolfe, affected by the Depression, decides to take the job, although it is unappealing to him. Archie locates Anna Fiore, a girl who listened in on a phone call Carlo received at his boarding-house shortly before his disappearance. Wolfe learns from her that Carlo had clipped a story from a copy of The New York Times about the sudden death (apparently by stroke) of Peter Oliver Barstow, president of Holland College. However, Anna refuses to provide any further details about Carlo, who is soon found dead in the countryside, stabbed in the back.
From reading the account of Barstow’s death, which occurred during a round of golf, Wolfe conjectures that one of his clubs may have been altered to fire a poisoned needle into his belly. An autopsy proves Wolfe right, and he and Archie begin to concentrate on the Barstow family and their acquaintances, E.D. Kimball and his son Manuel, who had both been part of the golf foursome. While trying to figure out the whereabouts of Barstow’s golf bag, Archie learns from the group’s caddies that he had borrowed a driver from E.D. during the round. This fact, coupled with E.D.’s accounts of his past in Argentina, leads Wolfe and Archie to conclude that Manuel had intended to kill his father, not Barstow, in revenge for the death of his mother years earlier. Archie confirms Manuel’s movements on the day Carlo was killed, making him a suspect in that murder as well. Manuel retaliates by having an associate plant a deadly Bothrops atrox viper in Wolfe’s desk drawer, but Wolfe and Archie find and kill it.
With Maria’s cooperation, Wolfe and Archie arrange a robbery in the countryside to scare Anna into telling what she knows. The trick works, and she hands over documents proving that Manuel hired Carlo to build the driver that killed Barstow. With the Kimball estate staked out, and a copy of the evidence delivered to Manuel, Archie leads the local police in so they can make an arrest. They learn that Manuel, an avid pilot, has taken E.D. up for a flight, and are shocked when the plane suddenly nose-dives into the ground; the impact kills both of them.
Wolfe collects both the $50,000 reward that Barstow’s widow had offered for the capture of his killer, and another $10,000 from a district attorney who had been skeptical of the murder theory. Wolfe comments that the climax of the case gave both E.D. and Manuel a chance to end their lives without any sense of bitterness or despair, but Archie notes that it also keeps Wolfe from having to leave his comfortable house in order to testify at a murder trial.
2021 has seen a marked decline in the percentage of SFF that I read. Nonfiction has increased with the Very Short Introduction series, Max Brand is keeping the Western genre alive in the rotation, Dickens has kept the Classics on a roll and tumbled into Chesterton and the Bronte’s, Shakespeare is keeping me firmly in the world of Literature and Lord Peter Wimsey is doing his dashin’ best to keep my interest in the Mystery genre. And now we have old fatso himself, Nero Wolfe, bringing back the Private Investigator. I’ve seen other bloggers change slowly and just wanted to stop and take a second to recollect that my reading is changing and is quite different from even 4 years ago. The reason I got all introspective was because of the main character in this book.
Nero Wolfe is an eccentric private detective who adores food, sleep and mystery and abhors people and leaving his house. As such, he’s hugely fat and I kept waiting for him to keel over dead from a heart attack. He’s a very smart man, able to reason out the much larger picture from just a fragment. He’s also immensely arrogant and beyond self-assured and if he’d been the narrator of the story I would have hated him and despised the author and you’d have gotten one long ranty review where I condemned Rex Stout to the stygian pits of darkness. But he was NOT the narrator. Thank goodness, we are told the story by one of Wolfe’s helpers, Archie Goodwin. Archie is a man’s man, full of vim, vigor and fisticuffs and not afraid to talk back to the police, tell a girl he’d like to pinch her cheeks and fake a robbery on his own client to get her to talk.
The mystery was interesting but seeing Nero orchestrate incidents and get people together or apart is what made this work for me. His manipulation of Archie is hard at times to stomach, but Archie trusts him (even while not necessarily liking him all the time) and Nero is proved right time after time. Nero is the brains while Archie is the foot and fist.
This was written in 1934 and as such is quite an interesting look into the times. The Great Depression, the after-effects of Prohibition, just life in general. I found it fascinating and led me down rabbit trails I wasn’t expecting. One such was the use of the word “spiggoty” by Archie. I could tell it was derogatory but I’d never heard of it before and couldn’t figure out HOW it was supposed to be derogatory. I basically had to chase down the etymology of the word and it turns out it is the predecessor of the slur “spic” today. Now, you’re not going to read books today that take you down trails like that.
There are approximately 47 books in this series. I think that is the longest series I’ve attempted to date. I am a bit concerned that it will go stale on me or, like the Brother Cadfael series, bore me by the end. My other concern is that I’m going to mix up the author with the main character. Nero Wolfe is the main character and he’s immensely fat. The author’s name is Rex Stout, another word for fat. I just know I’m going to mix up the two “fat” men at some point and I’m really concerned about it. What if I hurt their feelings? Fictional characters and dead men have feelings too! Oh wait, no they don’t. Ok, problem solved!
In ending, this was a great start to a series in a genre that hasn’t always appealed to me. Here’s to hoping it keeps me interested the whole time.