Thursday, October 11, 2012

Black Orchids, by Rex Stout


This one's actually a twofer. In the first novella ('Black Orchids'), an obnoxious young gardener is murdered at a flower show, where Nero Wolfe just happens to be on hand, having made one of his once-in-a-blue-moon excursions out of doors to ogle the world's only black orchids, which are on display at the show. Fortunately, the owner of these precious plants--fellow orchid aficionado and millionaire Lewis Hewitt, a familiar face to Wolfe fans--wants Wolfe to solve the murder (and keep Hewitt's name out of the papers). Wolfe is, of course, happy to oblige, provided Hewitt pays him a handsome fee. And in this case, the only fee that will satisfy our corpulent genius detective is three extremely rare flowers. But if he wants to keep them, he has to earn them, and that means figuring out who killed the gardener, and fast.

The second story ('Cordially Invited to Meet Death') involves the black orchids only tangentially. A prominent-but-eccentric party-planner hires Wolfe to figure out who's been sending nasty anonymous letters about her. However, before Wolfe can really dive into the case, his client dies of tetanus poisoning, and her brother is certain she was murdered. Wolfe sends flowers to the funeral--black orchids, no less--but claims to be both uninvolved and uninterested in the death of his client. But when Inspector Cramer commits an egregious (and insulting) blunder--at least according to Wolfe's standards--Wolfe decides that it is on, and is bound and determined to solve the case before Cramer. That'll learn him.

Both of these stories are delightful. Wolfe At Large is always amusing, so seeing him stuck at the flower show while Archie gallivants around dealing with a murder is quite entertaining. Archie's infatuation with Anne  Tracy (and his eventual recovery from that infatuation) is a treat and provides fodder for many excellent Archie-Wolfe interactions. And the murder itself is fairly ingenious, if convoluted. But the real star of the show is Lewis Hewitt and the big showdown in Wolfe's orchid rooms. Gold stars all around.

The second story boasts a heaping helping of insanity, as Wolfe's soon-to-be-dead client kept a chimp, two bears, some alligators, and a Southern secretary who just might know the secret to good corned beef hash. Archie's interactions with the animals, and Wolfe's interactions with the secretary, are not to be missed. This story boasts another clever murder, albeit an extremely unpleasant one (murder by tetanus, ick). And it's nice to see Wolfe actually follow through on his threats to Cramer. Cramer often capitulates to Wolfe's requests in order to avoid the unpleasant consequences, but it's good to see what happens when he doesn't (which, in turn, makes it more believable when he does cooperate).

My opinion of Michael Prichard's narration remains unchanged. He's no superstar, and he misses a lot of the nuance in Wolfe and Archie, but he's not actively bad.

If you  like Nero Wolfe but can't commit to a full-length novel (not that the full-length novels are particularly long, mind you), these half-length novellas might be the way to go.

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