Monday, December 10, 2012

Death of a Dude, by Rex Stout


It's summertime, and Archie's out Montana way living the good life with the well-heeled and playful Lily Rowan, who just so happens to own a ranch and a couple thousand head of cattle. It was supposed to be a vacation, but we know better, and before long Archie's up to his eyeballs in murder. Everybody seems to think Lily's ranch foreman Harvey bumped off the no-account city slicker who got his daughter pregnant, but Archie's convinced that Harvey would never shoot a man in the back. Still, knowing it and proving it are two very different things, and it looks like Archie may be out West for the long haul. This is, of course, a completely unsatisfactory state of affairs for Nero Wolfe, so the corpulent genius trundles off to Big Sky Country to expedite matters. Will the dynamic duo be able to clear Harvey and catch the real bad guy? And will Wolfe ever get Archie back home to the comfort of his beloved brownstone?

I know Wolfe's big schtick (or one of them, anyway) is that he never, ever leaves his house on business. He hates going anywhere. And yet, it seems like more often than not, these stories see him traipsing off to a flower show or a Christmas party or upstate New York or West Virginia or California or Montenegro, for crying out loud. It is a testament to Stout's writing that Wolfe's continued protestations in the face of travel (and Archie's unflinching insistence that Wolfe never leaves the house) never sound false or inflated. Instead of rolling my eyes and thinking 'Yeah, I'm so sure he never leaves the house ... except for always,' I find myself gleefully anticipating Wolfe's explosive denouncement of outdoor activities, or his longsuffering acceptance of travel as an unfortunate burden to be born. The stories are first and foremost character pieces, and a good bit of the fun is knowing those characters well enough to know how they will react to the events around them. So I find myself laughing before Inspector Cramer ever even gets a shot off, because I know he will blow his top over Wolfe's latest shenanigans. (Not that Cramer's in this one, but you get the idea.) These people aren't just characters in a book--they're our friends. We know them, and we know how they are likely to feel in various situations.

So when a longtime Stout fan hears the description 'Wolfe stays on a ranch in Montana', well, you know it's gonna be a hoot. And it is. Not, perhaps, the hootiest of Stout's works, but still well worth the cost of admission. And the supporting characters do not disappoint. Chief among these is Lily Rowan, who shows more to advantage here than she does in any other Stout book in my recollection--largely because of her longstanding 'friendship' with Archie and her ability to know when to hold her tongue. But she's not alone--Stout gets to invent a whole town full of cowboy types (something he doesn't get to do much in his typical New York stories). And mixed in among all the slow-talkin', cattle wranglin' types is the rather unexpected Woodrow Stepanian, who runs the town 'dance hall' (of sorts) and is fully capable of engaging Wolfe in surprisingly complex philosophical discussions.

The mystery here is kind of a non-starter, honestly, and the solution seems to be well within the capabilities of local law enforcement. But then, we don't read these stories for the mysteries, do we?

Prichard narrates--and does a pretty good job with all the country accents, to boot.

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