Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In the Best Families, by Rex Stout


It starts with a seemingly simple chore: find out where a certain married man is getting his sizable income. But one package of tear gas and a dead dog later (along with a murder, of course), and Wolfe finds himself pitted against the powerful super-villain Arnold Zeck. There's no doubt about it--Wolfe is in a deep hole with only one way out. So he flees. Leaves the house, leaves the orchids, arranges for new jobs for his cook Fritz and his orchid nurse Theodore. The house is offered for sale. And Archie ... Archie is given only one instruction: 'Do not look for me.'

As I've mentioned before, Zeck is the Moriarty to Wolfe's Holmes--his evil counterpart. And that means that this is Wolfe's 'The Final Problem'. Wolfe's 'death' is more metaphorical than Holmes' showdown atop Reichenbach Falls--Wolfe merely disappears. He vanishes into the ether, leaving Archie without a clue as to his whereabouts or plans. But, as this is not the final Wolfe book, it is not all that long before Wolfe returns, ready to vanquish the one man who is his intellectual equal.

Along the way, we get to see Archie adapt to a life without Wolfe, hanging out his own shingle and even grieving the loss of his employer (and friend). In an interesting turn of events, Archie is himself offered an opportunity in the Zeck crime business, which leads to some interesting interactions and events. Wolfe is absent for the bulk of the story, which makes for a different feel than Stout's usual books. But when Wolfe returns, he more than redeems himself for his absences. Wolfe's plan to take down Zeck for good (combined with the lengths to which he will go to effect that plan) is itself worth the cost of admission.

Lily Rowan makes a brief but memorable appearance, and we also catch glimpses of Fritz, Theodore, Inspector Cramer, Lon Cohen, and Con Noonan (the Rowcliff of Westchester PD). And Zeck, of course, whom we finally meet (having previously encountered him only in phone conversations and through the actions of his emissaries).

Of course, you'll understand the backstory better if you've read the previous Zeck stories--And Be a Villain and particularly The Second Confession--but Stout does a great job summarizing the relevant events and instilling the appropriate sense of foreboding and dread.

Prichard, whose narration has never impressed me, does a great job here, and handles one voice in particular with such skill that I almost forgive him for the lackluster narration of previous books.

All in all, this is a great book, and well worth reading.

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