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Spotlight on: Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe

Books Reviewed:
The Black Mountain
Over My Dead Body
The Red Box
The Second Confession

A&E Series Episode:
The Golden Spiders

To arrange to have products considered for review, send an email to craigsbookclub@yahoo.com.

The Black Mountain Rex Stout, The Black Mountain

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2002. Reprinted with permission.

When Nero Wolfe's childhood friend, Marko Vukcic, is found dead--shot three times--it turns Wolfe's routine upside down. His friend and self-proclaimed "amanuensis," Archie Goodwin, interrupts Wolfe's dinner with the announcement and heads down to the morgue to ID the body. Fans of Rex Stout's mystery series will know that only rare and extenuating circumstances will cause detective Nero Wolfe to leave the safety and comfort of the brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street where he makes his home, complete with full-time chef and orchid specialist.

While The Black Mountain does not approach the best of the Stout oeuvre, it is interesting for facts that are revealed about the elusive Nero Wolfe. The first and most surprising revelation is that Wolfe was not born in America. He was born and spent a large part of his childhood in the village of Montenegro ("black mountain") in what used to be called Yugoslavia. He also speaks fluent Serbo-Croatian. Also surprising is the news that Wolfe has an adopted Balkan daughter, Carla. This puts an entirely new spin on his character.

Another surprise is the ending that portrays a shocking event and then simply stops telling the story. No wrap-up, we have to invent what happens for ourselves. This was new to me in regard to Wolfe, as I was generally used to Archie finishing the story by telling the consequences of the mystery solution. The Black Mountain showed me that Stout was interested in playing with the conventions of his creation while still pleasing longtime fans.

Fer-de-Lance The Second Confession Rex Stout, Fer-de-Lance
Rex Stout, The Second Confession

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Unfortunately, the two Nero Wolfe novels I read this month did not particularly impress me. Initially, I read the first of the series, Fer-de-Lance, because I never had. However, the great thing about the Wolfe series is that you can start in the middle and not feel as if you've missed anything. Even in Fer-de-Lance there is no "meeting story." Wolfe and Goodwin are already in their respective patterns. "Past" cases are referred to and both characters are already fully developed.

The only difference in particular that I noticed is that Saul Panzer is called Paul and that this book--at nearly 300 pages--is almost twice as long as the majority of the series. I began noticing this somewhere around where the novel would usually end, around the 150 page point. It was then that I realized I was nowhere near completion, which made the rest of the read, while mostly enjoyable, a bit of a struggle.

The Second Confession I didn't like for another reason--that the villain's only trait is that he is a member of the Communist Party. I understand that this was written in 1949 and that was the mindset of the time, but in these more (hopefully) enlightened days, shouldn't a villain be a little more of a complete person than simply being an enemy of the US in the Cold War (now defunct)?

A man simply enters Wolfe's office, says "I want you to find this man. He's a Communist," and off we go. While Wolfe is his usual brilliant self in deducing the identity of the "commie," I was just not carried along by the story until very near the end, when I simply let the momentum of it take me to the solution.

Fer-de-Lance and The Second Confession were certainly not the best of the series. But Wolfe is still Wolfe (even if he is spouting jingoistic patriotism), and Archie is still wisecracking and flirting, and I still enjoyed myself. And getting Wolfe out of the brownstone is always good for a bit of fun. After all, even mediocre Rex Stout is better than no Rex Stout.

Over My Dead Body Rex Stout, Over My Dead Body

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

After a few recent misfires, I again found a Nero Wolfe novel worth my time. Over My Dead Body is also special because it tells us more about the essentially secretive detective. In The Black Mountain, we learned that he is of Serbo-Croatian descent, and that he had an adopted daughter. Here the daughter is at the front of the case.

Wolfe's daughter has been in America for a year, but only called upon her famous father because she became a suspect in a murder. So it's Wolfe and Archie Goodwin's job to clear her name. This relationship gives us a chance to see a side of Wolfe previously unknown. At one point, he even acknowledges a possible reason for his great size.

"I carry this fat to insulate my feelings. They got too strong for me once or twice and I had that idea. If I had stayed lean and kept moving around I would have been dead long ago."

So in Over My Dead Body, Stout not only delivers the goods in terms of a cracking mystery to solve but also delivers insight into the mind (and heart) of America's greatest detective.

The Red Box Rex Stout, The Red Box

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

In The Red Box, an early Nero Wolfe mystery from grand master Rex Stout, candy proves deadly when a young woman dies from ingesting a Jordan almond from a sampler from which two other people had also eaten. Since the young woman had no enemies, and the candy was undoubtedly intended for someone else, Nero Wolfe is called on the case.

In the meantime, the reader is introduced to a slew of odd characters, most of which come from the Frost family. Llewellyn first hires the detective, but when he gets upset and fires him, his "ortho-cousin" (a term with which I was unfamiliar but which proves central to the plot) takes on the fee.

Unlike most of the Wolfe mysteries, The Red Box struck me as too long by a fault. About halfway through, I was thinking it should begin to wrap up when there was still half a book remaining. No harm done, though, as the conclusion was entirely satisfying.

The Golden Spiders (2000)

I am a longtime fan of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. I was actually introduced to the characters through Robert Goldsborough's renderings in recent years, but now I realize that was nothing more than a pastiche. In addition to the novels, however, I've also listened to radio dramatizations starring Sydney Greenstreet and was impressed by how well the stories translated to a non-print medium.

So, when I heard that they were making a new Nero Wolfe series, starting with The Golden Spiders (included as a bonus feature in the Nero Wolfe: The Complete Classic Whodunit Series set), no one was more excited than I was. I've often respected Timothy Hutton (what little of his work I've seen), and I didn't know Maury Chaykin at all, but I knew if anyone was going to do Nero Wolfe right, it would be A&E. For the most part, I was right in that assumption, but this first step was not an auspicious debut.

First the good things, though. The set decoration of Wolfe's office is wonderful, very near to how I'd pictured it. A bit busier visually, perhaps, but still appropriate. And, despite my admiration for Sydney Greenstreet in the radio role, Maury Chaykin was perfect as Nero Wolfe! At times he reminded of the late Orson Welles in his voice and mannerisms, but it fit the character.

Now my complaints. Timothy Hutton is no Archie Goodwin. In the novels, Goodwin is a stylish, charismatic individual who has no trouble in the socializing department. Hutton's portrayal is wooden-with-a-smirk. Also, despite the condensation of a novel's plot into a two-hour movie, the story dragged. I kept nodding off. This would have been better served as an hour-long episode of a series.

In all, I wasn't able to like or dislike The Golden Spiders completely; I merely found it disappointing, but A&E has a true discovery in Maury Chaykin. I continued to hope they would make more just to keep this wonderful actor employed.

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