Thursday, October 18, 2012

Prisoner's Base, by Rex Stout


Under normal circumstances, a woman showing up on Wolfe's door looking for a place to stay would be unceremoniously bounced. But if the woman shows up when Wolfe and Archie are in the middle of a standoff, she may end up being escorted inside so Archie can use her to antagonize his employer. The situation is complicated when someone else tries to hire Wolfe to find a missing heiress (the same young lady who just so happens to be upstairs in the South Room). Wolfe's self esteem won't let him accept a fee for finding something that he already has, so he ejects the young woman and gives her a twelve-hour head start before he'll come looking for her. Within three hours, the young woman is dead. Archie feels pretty rotten about the whole situation (having essentially sent the woman to her doom), and vows to catch the murderer, even if means working with--or even for--the police. Which leads to a rather unusual situation: Wolfe takes the case, with Archie as his client.

The resolution of this particular mystery involves an assortment of towel-making execs, an attractive stylist of dubious talent, a comely (if slightly nutty and not terribly brave) widow, a handsome young South American, a young Hercules (Archie's description), and a slimy lawyer. There are, of course, an assortment of more familiar faces as well--freelance detective Saul Panzer, chef Fritz Brenner, Inspector Cramer, and Sergent Stebbins.

Archie's passion for this particular mystery lends a certain pathos to the story--which is by no means a universal characteristic of Stout's work. Many of Wolfe's jobs are just jobs; this one is personal. Not only does Archie feel responsible for the death of the young heiress; before long another attractive young woman is killed under circumstances that once again lead him to assume at least some responsibility for the untimely demise--particularly since Archie had a certain amount of respect and even fondness for both the young women in question. Archie tends to be fairly flip and irreverent about pretty much everything, including murder, so it's nice to see him actually connect with the story on an emotional level.

Also, Wolfe gets hauled downtown by none other than Archie's nemesis, Lieutenant Rowcliff, with the expected results--namely, Wolfe loses his temper and fur flies.

The story here is actually pretty good, and the resolution of the mystery is neat and fairly creative. When Wolfe's investigation is not progressing rapidly enough for Archie's taste, Archie's obsession with finding the murderer leads him to offer his services to the police. This, in turn, allows him to be absent from the office and out of the loop with regard to Wolfe's own efforts. The end result is a reveal that is a surprise to the police and to Archie (who usually helps do the revealing).

Prichard's narration isn't strong enough to be an added bonus, but he does a decent enough job to make the audiobook a legitimate alternative for those so inclined.

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