Meanwhile, I've been ripping though Nero Wolfes.
The Second Confession — Rex Stout
Three Doors to Death — Rex Stout
In the Best Families — Rex Stout
Arnold Zeck is Wolfe's Moriarty, a man seemingly as clever as the great detective who has turned that cleverness to crime. Second Confession and Best Families are the second and third books in the Zeck trilogy. Three Doors to Death is a collection of three novellas set around the same time. Curiously, the action in the two novels and one of the novellas is set mostly on country estates in Westchester County. Inspector Cramer hardly appears at all.
The two novellas set in the city, "Man Alive" and "Omit Flowers," are both good mysteries and fun. One thing I really liked in "Man Alive" was Archie's description of one of the suspects:
She was forty and looked it, and she was not an eyestopper in any obvious way, but everything about her, the way she walked, the way she stood, her eyes and mouth and whole face, seemed to be saying, without trying or intending to, that if you had happened to be hers, and she yours, life would be full of pleasant and interesting surprises.
The Westchester novella, "Door to Death" was made into what was probably my least favorite of the TV series episodes. For one thing, the MacGuffin in the story is that Theodore has had to go to be with his sick mother, so Wolfe has no one to do any of the grunt work up in the greenhouse. Thus, he lures an accomplished gardener away from his job at a Westchester estate, even traveling up there to seal the deal. Of course, just after Wolfe and Archie arrive, a body turns up, and the gardener is implicated. Wolfe solves the mystery, and the gardener hies off to the brownstone to take care of the orchids. The thing is, In the very next story, Theodore is back, and the gardener who gave up his cushy job is never seen again (as far as I know).
In The Second Confession, a millionaire wants to hire Wolfe to prove that the man wooing the millionaire's daughter is a communist. Instead Wolfe discovers that the man is an associate of Arnold Zeck, who phones to warn him off the case. When Wolfe refuses, Zeck punctuates the message by having the greenhouse destroyed. Then the associate turns up dead on the millionaire's Westchester estate, and Wolfe has to solve the case. The communism paranoia thread continues to run through book, which seems both weird and quaint looking at it sixty years later. It was a strange time. (I remember that in the days following JFK's assassination when it came out the Lee Harvey Oswald had ties to the communist party, my mother, normally one of the most tolerant people on earth, became very upset that Kennedy had been "killed by a Communist.") In the end, Wolfe and Zeck's interests coincide, so the battle is put on hold with Zeck thinking he still has the upper hand.
In the Best Families is the main event. This time a millionaire wants Wolfe to investigate the source of her husband's income. The husband turns out to be another Zeck associate. As usual, Zeck phones Wolfe to tell him to lay off, and sends along a tear gas bomb as a gift with purchase. Wolfe still doesn't back off, but then the client turns up dead in Westchester, with Archie finding the body. When Archie returns home, he finds the front door to the brownstone wide open, and that Wolfe has vanished.
The middle section of the book is terrific as Archie deals with the aftermath. First there are the accusations that he knows Wolfe's whereabouts. Archie's frustration with both the questions and his lack of answers is palpable:
"You know," I said, "I have probably told as many lies as any man my age except psychos. But I have never been called a liar as frequently as in the past twenty-four hours, and I have never stuck so close to the truth. To hell with it. Mr. Wolfe has gone south to train with the Dodgers. He will play shortstop."
Archie decides goes into business for himself. He sets up shop on Madison Avenue, and does quite well, proving to himself that he could actually make more money on his own than working for Wolfe. (Earlier in the book Archie mentions figures that allow one to calculate his salary as $1000/month, a lot of money in 1950.)
After some months of this, Archie is ready for a break, and he plans a month-long vacation to Norway with a woman of his acquaintance. It's at this point that Zeck reappears, offering Archie a job through an intermediary. Then Wolfe reappears, too, sort of, and the end game starts.
I would've much preferred that Wolfe would've taken down Zeck through good detective work, slowly building a case against him so airtight that there was no escape from justice. Instead, Wolfe decided, as Holmes did, to go the Reichenbach route. I suppose, like Holmes, he figured that if Zeck lived, he would still be a threat even if incarcerated. So Wolfe and Archie set a Mission Impossible type plan in motion that ultimately ends with Zeck dead and his organization scattered. I didn't like it. In effect, Wolfe took justice into his own hands, actively encouraging a third party to pull the trigger. Wolfe has done similar before, especially in Black Orchids where he rigged a booby trap that killed a murderer intent on killing him. But in that case, the villain, himself, pulled the trigger. What would've happened had the third party not done as Wolfe planned? Would he have killed Zeck himself? Would Archie have done it? Unlike Black Orchids, there is no discussion of the ethics of what Wolfe and Archie did.
Afterward, there is still the matter of the original murder, which Wolfe solves in short order. It was actually a fairly simple mystery. I figured it out early on. There was only one person it could be.
Still, despite the ethical questions (or are they moral questions?) it raises about Wolfe and Archie, there is a lot to like in this book. For one thing, it marks the return of Lily Rowan after a several book absence. It turns out that it was she with whom Archie was heading to Norway. I was beginning to wonder when she'd be back. Through most of the book I'd guessed that the unnamed woman Archie'd been spending so much time with might have been Madeline Sperling, whom he'd met and become friendly with in Second Confession. I was glad to see it was Lily. Better yet, Lily gets drawn into the plan to act as the disguised Wolfe's girlfriend.
"There's one who might take this as a substitute for a trip to Norway, which is now out. I could ask her."
"What's her name?"
"You know. Lily Rowan."
He made a face. "She is rich, intemperate, and notorious."
"Nuts. She is well-heeled and playful."
The scenes with Lily and Wolfe are worth the price of admission alone.
Archie expounds further on Lily further on:
I took on a little of it myself, but mostly I left it to the help. Not that I loafed. There were quite a few hours with Lily Rowan, off and on, both as a substitute for the trip to Norway, indefinitely postponed, and as a check on the soundness of the estimate of her I had given Wolfe. She caused me no qualms.
There are some other bits and pieces worth mentioning. One thing that struck me (in Second Confession, too) was that Wolfe and Archie were driving around in Cadillacs and Chevies. Normally, Stout made a point of having no product placement in his books. In most of the books from the fifties on, Wolfe owned (and Archie drove) a Heron sedan. The other thing I though was neat was this passage, where Archie channels his inner Wayne and Garth:
Just as the light was changing, the cop on my side stuck his head out and called, "Pull over to the curb." Flattered at the attention as any motorist would be, not, I obeyed.