12/14/11

Death Throws a Party

"No man should tell a lie unless he is shrewd enough to recognize the time for renouncing it, if and when it comes, and knows how to renounce it gracefully."
– Nero Wolfe.
The trees have shed their leaves, which blanket our lawns and sidewalks, as the days have become notably shorter, the nights a lot colder and we pour ourselves a warm beverage – while we wait for the first snowflake to drop or a pond to freeze over. Decorated trees adorn our living rooms and dens. Jolly-looking, white-bearded, red-clad men in shiny boots took up their residence in the store windows and radio DJ's receive letters from listeners who threaten to burn the station to the ground if they play Wham's Last Christmas one more time. Ah, yes, Christmas must be upon us!

Over the past few years, I made it a holiday tradition to read two or three Christmas themed mysteries or detective stories with an evocative winter setting. Last year, it was the turn of Pierre Véry's The Murder of Father Christmas (1934) and Anthony Abbot's The Creeps (1939), but for this yuletide I had only one book lined up, Rex Stout's And Four to Go (1958), which can be put down to the fact that stories from the first category are becoming a bit scarce. I have less than a handful of them to go and I will spread them out over the years ahead of us, but, for the moment, it's time to head back to that familiar and comfy brownstone of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin – and is there a better spot in "Cloud Cuckoo Land" to spend Christmas than at their place?

Snuffing up the mouth-watering aromas wafting from Fritz's kitchen, taking a stroll through the forest of orchids on the greenhouse roof and listening to the bickering, between Wolfe and Goodwin, emanating from the office as they plot petty larceny and throw marriage licenses around. Yup, there's only one place like that on the printed page!

Christmas Party (also published as The Christmas Party Murder)

The detective business has been rather slow at that famous brownstone, on West 35th Street, and without a profitable client or pressing matters to tend to, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin gave up on resisting their juvenile tendencies – which means that they no longer put in effort not to annoy one another too much. An agitated Archie is the first one to clamber out of the trenches of this childish workplace skirmish, after finding out that he's been scheduled to drive his oversized employer to Mr. Lewis Hewitt, who'll be entertaining a well-regarded hybridizer from England, on the same evening he's expected at a Christmas party, and charges straight ahead to deliver a cataclysmic blow to Wolfe's disposition: slapping a marriage license for himself and a woman named Margot Dickey on his desk.

Wolfe's response is a predictable one, "you are deranged," but Archie claims this battle and takes his fiancée to the party, however, it comes to an abrupt halt when the host, Kurt Bottweill, takes a swig from a poisoned goblet of Pernod – and the fatter-than-usual Santa Claus, who was tending the bar, vanished like smoke through a chimney. Plot-wise, this is a not ingenious or complexly plotted detective story, but a typical, average fare that you come to expect from Rex Stout. Luckily, we don't read his stories for their plots, but to cross the threshold of that comfy brownstone and spend a few hours in the company of a bunch of character who, at times, make you feel like you're visiting old friends and they wrapped themselves up in enough trouble to keep the story moving along nicely.

Easter Parade (also published as The Easter Parade Murder)

Mr. Millard Bynoe, an affluent man with a deep-rooted love for flowers, succeeded where Wolfe has been failing for years: cultivating a flamingo-pink Vanda, "both petals and sepals true pink, with no tints, spots, or edgings," but he simply refuses to display the orchid until the next International Flower Show – which is in this story marked down on the calendar for the following year. Wolfe finds this stalling unacceptable, but a rumor has it that his wife persuaded him to let her wear a spray of it during the church service on Easter Day, which inspires the stout detective with arguably the worst scheme of his career! He begs Archie to act as a go-between in attracting and hiring a thief to pluck the rare orchid from the innocent woman's bosom, but the plan goes awry when Mrs. Bynoe collapses in the street and Archie was seen running after the orchid snatcher.

Wolfe and Goodwin find themselves, once again, in a world of trouble and this time they have more on their plate than just a baffling and daring murder – literarily committed in the public eye. The gumshoes also have to obliterate any trail of the petty larceny of a flower that might lead to their doorstep. A great story, character-wise, but also depressing as hell that Stout wasn't able to do more with the plot – which could've been turned into a full-fledge impossible crime story with just a little bit more imagination.

Fourth of July Picnic (also published as The Labor Union Murder)

And while we're on the subject of impossible crimes, this story secured a spot in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991) as a falsely advertised locked tent mystery. Nero Wolfe has agreed to venture outdoors to give a speech at a picnic of the United Restaurant Workers of America, under the condition that they stop pestering his personal, live-in gourmet chef, Fritz Brenner, to join their union, but a body turns up with a knife handle protruding from his back – and the locked and watched environment of the tent only functioned as a pool to keep the splash of dodgy characters from spreading all over the place (i.e. create a closed-circle of suspects situation). This was the least interesting and exciting story of this collection with its only really interesting point being Archie's short biography of himself.

Murder is No Joke

In spite of what the title, in combination with the theme of this collection, might suggest, this is, sadly, not a story with a plot that revolves around an April Fools joke with a killer of a punch line – which would've been great if only for the interaction between Wolfe and Goodwin on that day! But no, this is the only novella in the collection without a holiday theme, however, the plot of this story finally shows a shimmering of imagination. Flora Gallant asks Wolfe for help in dealing with a woman who has a negative influence on her brother, but the shrew is murdered in mid-conversation with Wolfe and Archie on the phone! The clueing was still below par, but the central idea was not devoid of merit and once again makes you wish Stout had been more adept were his plotting skills were concerned.

All in all, a fairly average outing for these two gumshoes, which derives it interest mainly from the situations they find themselves in rather than from their plots, but that's to be expected and not something I will hold against Rex Stout. These are stories about two detectives rather than detective stories and fans will no doubt delight in the way these two spend their holidays. Recommend... if you are a fan. 


Les Blatt also reviewed this book, as an audio podcast, last Monday over at Classic Mysteries

And on an unrelated note: I now own a copy of Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes and have already placed several orders based on descriptions in this book. Two very obscure, somewhat scarce and pricey titles will arrive here within the next 4-5 weeks, but a third, less obscure, book was delivered today and will be up next on this blog. So you know what to expect from this place in the new year: more impossible crime! 

5 comments:

  1. I need to dig into these Wolfe novellas. I think they'd be more my speed. I have attempted several novels and I always lose interest in them well before the halfway mark. But strangely his non-Nero wolfe books I can make it through with no problem.

    I'm eager to know which authors tempted you after poring over Adey's reference book. British? American? French?

    Speaking of Christmas and the holiday season: I forgot to wish you a Happy Sinterklaas Dag last week. Did you put your shoes out? ;^) I wish we had a version of Black Peter over here. I think that part of a European (specifically Dutch, I think, though the Germans have a version of him, too) Christmas is surreally wild.

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  2. John,

    I'm the opposite, preferring the novels to the novellas. Stout usually shows a lot more ingenuity and creativity, measured against his own standards, in his plotting when he was writing a full-length novel – and tended to disregard a lot of these things (especially clueing) in his shorter works. The biggest exception is Not Quite Dead Enough, which is absolutely brilliant and shows Wolfe and Archie functioning during wartime. It's probably one of the best books Stout ever wrote! Black Orchids and Three for the Chair (containing "Too Many Detectives") are also excellent.

    I can't tell openly, because Patrick might read it and call upon the Evil Powers That Be (a.k.a. The Lending Libraries of Canada) and beat me to it. ;)

    Thanks! I'm too old now for the shoe thing, but it remains a great kick-off of the holiday season. It would be unintentionally funny if America would start celebrating Sinterklaas, as well, if only to watch the hilarity of one half explaining Black Peters to other half.

    Yes, St. Nicholas Day is celebrated in other European countries, too, but not like we and the Belgium's do it. Just type Intocht Sinterklaas in YouTube.

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  3. We celebrate Swietego Mikolaja in Poland. No shoes or anything, though-- but it's a nice little holiday.

    Ahem, as a representative of The Lending Libraries of Canada (I work at one, so it counts!), we are not evil. Just resourceful. :)

    I read the first of these stories, and it's fun. The solution isn't special, but the situation is so insane I can't help enjoying it.

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  4. The Germans were a resourceful bunch, once upon a time, but that didn't earn them any good behavioral points with the international community, now did it? ;)

    What I forgot to mention, the TV adaptation of "Christmas Party," with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, is excellent and shows, once again, how even the most weakly plotted stories from the corpus sparkle on the small screen – if they are faithfully adapted (e.g. Death of a Doxy).

    Stout's forte was dialogue, especially Goodwin's narrative voice is a work of art, and therefore perfect for a quality TV series.

    Unfortunately, I doubt any feature series/movies will be as faithful to their source materials as the A&E productions.

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  5. Great review TomCat - so far I have utterly failed to read a seasonal book but I shall have to follow your example and remedy that. Like John, I often find myself preferring Stout in shorter doses though I always enjoy the Archie and Nero adventures anyway - of his novella collections, my absolute favourite is probably CURTAINS FOR THREE with three really well-plotted stories

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