Friday, October 19, 2012

Champagne for One, by Rex Stout


It's just a fancy charity dinner for unwed mothers--what's the worst that could happen? Archie, roped into attending at the last minute as a favor for a sick friend, is about to find out. When one of the unwed mothers drops dead after sipping some cyanide-laced champagne, the police are ready to call it suicide. After all, the girl had cyanide with her, in her purse, and had threatened to kill herself with it in the past. But Archie saw the whole things, and he's positive the girl was murdered (much to the consternation of Inspector Cramer and company). Wolfe is dragged in when the unwed father in question (who just so happened to be at the dinner) hires the brilliant detective to catch the real killer before the police uncover his connection to the murdered girl. But who could have done it? She had no friends, no boyfriends, no social life to speak of ... yet someone cared enough about her to want her dead.

This is not one of my favorite Wolfe stories, and I'm not sure why. It was considered worthy of adaptation for the A&E television series A Nero Wolfe Mystery, and other reviewers include it among their favorites. It has plenty of interesting female characters (Celia Grantham, daughter to the wealthy hostess of the charity dinner and dancer par excellence; the four (soon-to-be three) unwed mothers, including the lovely Ethel Varr, the eternally cheerful Rose Tuttle, and less-than-clever Helen Yarmis; the perceptive, intelligent, no-nonsense matron of a home for unwed mothers; the repulsively seductive mother of the victim; and the unpleasant-but-well-connected hostess herself). And yet somehow it always falls a bit flat to me.

Perhaps it's Archie's inexplicable willingness to accommodate a request from a mere acquaintance (and one who is clearly faking a cold to get out of this dinner)--especially since he and Wolfe have a none-too-pleasant history with the hostess. Perhaps its because I find the motive rather strained and implausible, especially given both the temperament of the killer and Archie's presence at the dinner. All but the dumbest or most arrogant killers would, it seems, be reluctant to undertake a murder right in front of a skilled private detective, and it does not seem that this killer is either stupid or possessed of sufficient hubris to make such an attempt.

Or maybe it's just me.  All I know is that for the many dozens of times I've re-read Death of a Doxy, Too Many Clients, The Mother Hunt, and Some Buried Caesar, I've only read Champagne for One maybe three times. And each time I re-read it, I hope that I will like it better and I just ... don't. If you want the full Nero Wolfe experience, you should probably give this a read, but otherwise, there's no need.

(The audiobook is fine, as well, if that's more your speed.)

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