Friday, September 21, 2012

Before Midnight, by Rex Stout


Everyone's talking about the Pour Amour perfume contest . . . and the million dollars in prize money that will be awarded to the lucky winners who can solve the cosmetics-related riddles put out by the company. The contest has been a roaring success. The five finalists are assembled in New York City, and the last five riddles have been distributed. Everything's going swimmingly . . . until the contest creator winds up dead, and the list of answers he had in his pocket is nowhere to be found. So the advertising execs do what any reasonably person would do: they head straight for the office of Nero Wolfe and hire him to figure out who took the list of answers, and to find a way to resolve the contest. But there's a catch: he has to finish the job before midnight on April 19th.

Yet another perfectly serviceable mystery story. This particular volume gives us a glimpse into Archie and Wolfe's private communication rules (no direct lies), an ode to Saul Panzer, and Archie's thoughts on mornings, as well as an opportunity to observe Wolfe's humiliation and rage when someone has the audacity to murder one of the suspects in Wolfe's own office (which has, I believe been the scene of no fewer than half a dozen murders or attempted murders over the years). In fact, he's so irate that he decides to make one of his rare (but not unheard-of) excursions outside the old brownstone. Heads will roll. Or at least one, anyway.

The contestants are quite a hoot as well: the incomparably ugly founder of the Women's Nature League, a smugly superior (and unjustifiably despondent) history professor, an undernourished but surprisingly self-possessed housewife, a sassy researcher with a phalanx of silent supporters, and a man who looks like Old King Cole. We see all the usuals, of course: the phlegmatic Fritz; Inspector Cramer (and his sidekick Sergeant Stebbins); and supporting P.I.'s Fred Durkin, Orrie Cather, and even Bill Gore. And we get to learn a little something about the history of cosmetics--or at least the women who used them.

The story is, perhaps, not one of Stout's best, but I still find it highly enjoyable. Fans of Nero Wolfe would do well to check out this volume, though I don't know that I would recommend it to new readers. Start with Some Buried Caesar or Death of a Doxy instead (though Too Many Cooks, Too Many Clients, and The Mother Hunt are also excellent).

[For those interested in the audiobook edition, be warned: it's actually a digitized version of an audio cassette recording, and dates from an age when audiobook narrators just read the book, instead of really trying to give life (and unique voices) to the characters. As a result, Michael Prichard's narration is a bit dry, and while there are subtle differences between the characters' voices, it really is like listening to some guy read the book. There isn't any sparkle to the performance. In other words: Jim Dale he ain't.]

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