Monday, November 5, 2012

Death Times Three, by Rex Stout


Another Nero Wolfe threesome--that is to say, a collection of three novellas featuring our favorite fattie and his back-talking sidekick, Archie Goodwin.

In 'Bitter End', Wolfe partakes of a jar of pate that has been laced with quinine. He is, of course, outraged at the insult to his palate, and vows to catch the guilty party. So off Archie goes to Tingley's Tidbits to snoop around. But when Arthur Tingley himself winds up with his throat cut, things get complicated--not least because Wolfe's client (the lovely niece of the dearly departed) is a prime suspect.

In 'Frame-Up for Murder', a lovely French girl convinces Archie petition Wolfe on her behalf--to rid her brother of an unpleasant woman who is destroying his clothing design business. But when Wolfe and Archie get on the phone with the source of the problem, they are greeted by a torrent of insults, a scream, a moan, and a thud. The woman is found dead in her office, and it seems that Wolfe and Archie were ear-witnesses to the murder. But Wolfe isn't so sure. He suspects that someone is trying to make a monkey of him, and decides to get even by catching the killer.

Finally, in 'Assault on a Brownstone', Hattie Annis, the eccentric proprietor of a boarding house for folks in show business, shows up on the doorstep requesting an appointment with the man himself. After being told to return during Wolfe's normal office hours, she entrusts Archie with a package and departs. But before she can return, she is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in a stolen car. When Archie unwraps the package, he finds $9,000 in counterfeit bills--indicating that one of the boarders at Ms. Annis's place isn't what he or she seems. Knowing that the Department of the Treasury would rather catch a counterfeiter than a murderer, and determined to see justice done, Archie decides to solve the murder himself, with or without Wolfe's help. Fortunately, the Treasury sends men to search Wolfe's house from top to bottom, which so riles Wolfe that he agrees to assist Archie in tracking down the murderer/counterfeiter.

All three of these stories appear elsewhere in Stout's writings: 'Bitter End' is a re-working of the full-length novel Bad for Business, featuring Stout's lesser known protagonist, private detective Tecumseh Fox. 'Frame-Up for Murder' is an expanded re-write of 'Murder Is No Joke', a novella included in the Nero Wolfe foursome And Four to Go. And 'Assault on a Brownstone' was an early draft of 'Counterfeit for Murder', a novella included in Homicide Trinity. This collection was published posthumously in 1985, and I suspect the publishers were so eager for some excuse to churn out more of Stout's stuff that they were more than happy to slap together three previously 'unpublished' stories, even if the mysteries themselves had been published before, albeit in slightly different form. Still, it's interesting to see how Stout changed the stories--allowing some characters to live, killing off others, and tweaking the details to fit a new detective. For the hardcore Wolfe fan, this is a good collection to peruse, but for the casual reader or new initiate, it would probably be better to stick to the stories published in Stout's lifetime.

Meanwhile, I think Prichard's narration is growing on me. I still don't love the way he voices Archie, but he's got Wolfe down pat and does a decent job with the supporting characters.

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