Friday, October 5, 2012

Murder by the Book, by Rex Stout


Who is Baird Archer? The police can't find anyone who's ever met him, talked to him, or seen him. As far as anyone can figure, he doesn't exist. The police--and Nero Wolfe--only know two things: (1) a manuscript ostensibly written by Baird Archer was submitted to and rejected by a New York publisher, and (2) everyone who's ever read the manuscript is now dead. First, there was Leonard Dikes, a clerk at a law firm, who had the name 'Baird Archer' written on a scrap of paper in his apartment. He washed up drowned. Then there was Joan Wellman, who worked for the publishing company and who read and rejected the novel. She was run over by a car. Then there was Rachel Abrams, who was hired to type up the manuscript. She was choked and thrown out a window.  But who did it? And why? And what was in that manuscript that was worth killing for? Wolfe is determined to find out, if he has to spend every last penny of his client's money to do it.

Fans of Nero Wolfe will undoubtedly enjoy this little gem. Much of the charm relates to Archie's attempt to seduce (as in 'entice'--not in the sexual way, much to the relief of Wolfe's churchgoing client) a whole office full of women by sending them all orchids and inviting them, en masse, to the old brownstone for a genuine gourmet meal (courtesy of Fritz Brenner), unlimited alcoholic beverages, and a tour of the orchid rooms, which is maybe not the best combination ever. Shenanigans ensue.

I always appreciate the inclusion of strong female characters in Stout's books, which is by no means a sure thing across the board for him, and I particularly appreciate the introduction of women Archie respects and appreciates. This volume boasts several--from an intelligent secretary with lovely temples (talk about a random feature to praise); to a switchboard operator who's not terribly young or attractive but can dance every bit as well as Archie; to a plump, middle aged woman with a quick mind and twinkling eyes (this last one is my favorite, and I suspect Archie feels the same way). Archie definitely has his hands full.

This is also one of the few Nero Wolfe books to boast a cross-country trip. Archie ends up flying (!) to California (!!) in an attempt to corral the evidence necessary to identify--and convict--the frustratingly clever killer. Needless to day, Wolfe is deeply relieved (and a bit surprised) that Archie arrives home safely after such a foolhardy and reckless adventure.

All in all, it's a fun and fairly clever story, full of the kinds of hijinks that I, for one, wholeheartedly endorse.

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