Monday, December 3, 2012

And Four to Go, by Rex Stout


This one's a rare four-story collection of holiday homicides.

The collection kicks off with 'Christmas Party', wherein Wolfe himself--in an effort to investigate the depth of Archie's commitment to a particular female--bartends a Christmas party. In disguise. As Santa Claus.  When the host drops dead from cyanide poisoning, Wolfe skedaddles, but the police are understandably suspicious of the mysterious unknown Santa-bartender who vanished immediately following the murder. The only way to keep the world from finding out is to find the murderer before the police find Santa (er, Wolfe).

In 'Easter Parade', Wolfe's flower envy rears its ugly head, as he asks Archie to snatch (or, at any rate, hire someone to snatch) a rare flower from the corsage of a certain woman in the Easter parade. However, the orchid snatcher chooses a rather inopportune time for his theft--just as the woman is collapsing in a fit of convulsions brought on by strychnine poisoning. Wolfe is determined to solve the murder before the police discover his orchid thievery. Fortunately, Archie was at the scene of the murder, camera in hand ... but will the film contain anything useful?

In 'Fourth of July Picnic', Wolfe has been dragged from his home to deliver a speech at the annual picnic of a restaurant workers' union. When a carving knife is found, handle deep, in the back of a union official, Wolfe himself is among the suspects, and he undertakes to exonerate himself the only way he knows how: by catching the real killer.

'Murder Is No Joke' is the odd man out, as it does not involve a holiday murder. In this story (an expanded re-write of which was included in Death Times Three as 'Frame Up for Murder'), a clothing designer is being destroyed by a very unpleasant. Fortunately, his sister has the brains to consult Wolfe about it. But when unpleasant woman winds up dead, this get worse for everyone--including Wolfe and Archie, who may have been earwitnesses to the murder. But Wolfe is suspicious, and his suspicions only increase when he learns of the suicide of a down-and-out actress. Could the two be connected?

These are not among Stout's strongest short stories. 'Christmas Party' is utterly implausible (though it does provide some nice insight into Wolfe's relationship with Archie, and the lengths to which he would go when faced with the possibility of losing his trusted assistant to the bonds of matrimony). 'Easter Parade' isn't much better--Wolfe is not above orchid stealing, but the likelihood that he would entrust such a task to a hired thief is questionable. 'Fourth of July Picnic' is, well, kind of dull, and while I appreciate Stout's decision to change Flora Gallant from a lovely damsel to a frump (after all, not all female clients can be lookers), it does remove much--or all--of Archie's motivation for pushing Wolfe into the case. Which, in turn, makes it that much more unlikely that Wolfe would take the case with such paltry fee potential.

This is not Stout's strongest collection, but Stout completists will want to include it in their reading. Newer initiates or casual readers need not bother. Prichard narrates the audiobook (and capably enough at that).

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