Sunday, December 2nd, 2007
11:57 am - Black Orchids and Red Leather  
More delving into the development of Nero Wolfe's universe.

Black Orchids is the ninth Wolfe book, and it contains two very tenuously connected novellas. I found it for a buck the other day at the Book Barn. The first, "Black Orchids" has Wolfe and Archie stumbling across a murder at a flower show. Good mystery, although it's one that could've been cleared up right away if one of the characters didn't have the brains of a turnip. There were two surprises here. First, I managed to be completely fooled by Wolfe's misdirection as to the identity of the killer, despite knowing that the accused character couldn't possibly be the murderer because of meta reasons (he's a character in later books). Second, the ending raises some uncomfortable questions. Wolfe sets a trap for the actual murderer in which he literally gives him enough rope to hang himself, which the murderer proceeds to do. The murderer attempts to kill Wolfe, Archie, Cramer, et al., but Wolfe had rigged the murderer's weapon to backfire on the user. There is some discussion at the end between Wolfe and Cramer on the ethics of what Wolfe did, and whether Wolfe should be held for the murder of the murderer. It's not as if there was no proof that the killer had done the deed. Turnip brain had witnessed him rigging the murder weapon, and there was plenty of other eveidence. Instead Wolfe goes through an elaborate charade to goad the killer into executing himself. (Oddly enough, I saw the exact same situation, device, and turnabout on a recent Pushing Daisies ep, although in that case the killer was merely injured, not executed.)

The second novella is "Cordially Invited to Meet Death," in which a Martha Stewart type meets her death in a particularly gruesome and nasty manner. The most notable thing about it is the setting. The woman lived on an estate in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, with chimpanzees, alligators and bears freely roaming the grounds. Very strange.

Where There's a Will is the eighth Wolfe book, and was a hard item to track down. Couldn't find an eBook version, B&N didn't have a copy, Book Barn didn't have a copy, my sister didn't have a copy. Finally found that the Jamestown library had a sixty-seven year-old copy, so I took a drive over yesterday after the sun came out. Finished it in an evening. The mystery starts as an inquiry into a will, but escalates when it turns out that the man who wrote the will had not died accidently, but had in fact been murdered.

It's a weird book. For a lot of it Wolfe is on-site rather than in the brownstone. There are a lot of suspects, one of whom is the Secretary of State. The mystery hinges on a set of photographs which are supposed to have been reproduced in the book, but aren't in the copy I have. It doesn't look as though they were once there but later ripped out. Maybe this was just a cheapo edition. I still managed to figure out whodunnit without them, because Archie does include descriptions of them, although he doesn't mention the key detail that Wolfe used to uncover the villain. I got there by a different, although correct, set of reasoning.

The novella "Bitter End" is a bit of an oddity. It originally appeared as a magazine article between the publications of Where There's a Will and Black Orchids, and then never saw publication again until Death Times Three came out ten years after Rex Stout's death. It starts with Wolfe investigating a case of product tampering, but as usual there's eventually a murder.

The story isn't of much use in looking at events in the Wolfe canon. First of all, it started its existence as one of Stout's Tecumseh Fox mystery novels. Wolfe later rewrote it for Wolfe and Archie while compacting the plot for the magazine publication. The 1985 book version is itself an example of product tampering. Some moron apparently changed one date in the text to be more contemporary, while leaving the rest as is. Thus we have a story clearly set in 1941 (among other things, Archie goes to a "newsreel theater"), with a company founded "seventy years ago" whose primary product displays the Wodehouse-esque slogan, "Tingly's Tidbits—Since 1981—The Best Liver Pate."

The red leather chair finally appears in Where There's a Will, although no mention of leather is made. It first shows up when Wolfe mentions to a visitor, "'That red chair is most comfortable.'" A few pages later, Archie pins down its location:

"The office had been restored to its normal condition as to chairs. As usual, the red one was at the right of Wolfe's desk, turned to face him..."

In "Black Orchids," the chair finally becomes leather, although the first mention is of "a red leather chair." By the end of "Cordially Invited to Meet Death," though, "Cramer sat in the red leather chair."

Archie never does ditch his notebook, but unlike in some of the earlier books, by Where There's a Will he's able to recite full conversations verbatim from memory.

Lon Cohen still has yet to make an appearance. The Gazette is mentioned all the way back in "Fer-de-Lance," with someone named "Harry Foster" being Archie's contact there. I had hopes for Where There's a Will when Wolfe mentions that the editor of The Gazette dines with him once a month, but later we find out this editor's name is "W.B. Oliver."
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