Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Curtains for Three, by Rex Stout


In this collection of short stories, Wolfe and Archie learn that appearances can be deceiving and things are not always what they seem.

In 'The Gun With Wings', an opera singer with an injured throat seems to have committed suicide by eating a bullet. After all, the gun was right there next to him, and who else could have done it? But when the widow swears up and down that the gun wasn't on the floor when she discovered the body. How did it get there? And what really happened?

In 'Bullet for One', the murder victim was shot off his horse when he was out for his daily ride in Central Park. All signs point to Vic Talbot as the murderer, but he has an airtight alibi--two witnesses swear he was in his hotel room across town shortly after the victim was seen by a beat cop, alive and well. Will Wolfe be able to figure out who fired the fatal shot?

In 'Disguise for Murder', things get personal. When Wolfe opens his orchids rooms to the members of the Manhattan Flower Club, a woman winds up strangled ... in Wolfe's own office. Shortly before she died, she told Archie that she'd recognized the man who killed her friend Doris--or, at any rate, the man she saw entering Doris's apartment the day she died. She wouldn't describe him, and she didn't know his name, but she saw him in the orchid rooms, and now she's dead. Wolfe, of course, is deeply insulted that anyone would commit murder in his house, but when Inspector Cramer seals off the office where he spends most of his waking hours, Wolfe is downright incensed, and vows to catch the murderer and make Cramer pay. Which is exactly what he does, even if it means putting Archie in the path of danger.

With such short stories, it's hard to provide much in the way of character development, but Stout does a surprisingly good job, and incorporates a variety of females characters for our heroes to bump up against. We learn, for example, that Archie is not above being affected by the naive determination of young love and that he has no patience for perpetual eyebrow-raisers and no interest in young women who 'glisten'.

The mysteries themselves grow increasingly implausible through the collection--'The Gun With Wings' is perhaps a shade too clever, 'Bullet for One' is slightly nutty, and 'Disguise for Murder' is downright ridiculous. It transpires that the murderer has a killer (heh) disguise, but there's no real reason for the disguise to be so thorough and meticulous--or well-developed (including a distinctive walk, an altered voice, and facial changes). It is more consistent with an alternate identity sustained over time for criminal (or at least secret) purposes, rather than a disguise assumed on a single occasion for a single discrete objective, particularly since the killer had no reason to think the disguise would receive more than a passing glance from a chance passerby. Under those circumstances, a change of clothes and a pulled-down hat would likely be sufficient. The effort involved in the killer's chosen disguise is all out of proportion to both the needs of the situation and the motive behind the murders. Also, we get no explanation of how the killer was able to construct such an excellent and effective disguise--nothing in the killer's background indicates this level of skill and intelligence. Granted, it's a short story, so Stout has to keep things brief, but still.

Still, as a collection, it's worth reading, if only for the characters and the dialogue. And Prichard does a decent enough job with the audiobook narration, even if it's nothing to write home about.

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