It's not really right to ever include any of Rex Stout's crime fiction in the Friday's Forgotten Book posts, but here I go anyway. How can anyone call Nero Wolfe forgotten? I needed to find some books published in 1957 and all I could find were British writers among my shelves. I wanted to devote more time to US writers this year, especially when it came to contributing to Rich Westwood's "Crime of the Century" monthly posts where we write about books published in a specific year. By chance I stumbled across my beat up book club edition of Three for the Chair and was glad to see a copyrighted date of 1957. I'll just gloss over the fact that all three novellas in the book were originally published in magazines in 1955 and 1956 if that's all right with everyone. And now that's all out of the way -- let's move on, class.
I was excited to return to Nero Wolfe after having completely given up on him for over forty years. As luck would have it Three for the Chair seems to be very atypical for Stout, at least from my foggy memories of the novels I've already read. Among the three novellas in this book there are two very well plotted mysteries, one of them including a borderline impossible crime. I was very surprised and delighted with those stories. As for the third...
It's one of two stories in the book where Wolfe and Archie leave Manhattan and his brownstone haven where Wolfe would prefer to be. The private eye has been invited to a mountain lodge in the Adirondacks to prepare a special gourmet trout dish for a group of visiting diplomats. But just before the dinner is to be served one of the guests is found with his head bashed in and floating face down in the river. There's not much of a mystery here and the identity of the killer got a sort of "So what?" reaction from me. The real interest in the story is Wolfe's attempt to work around New York laws dealing with the treatment of diplomats and the surprising news that anyone who dares to arrest a diplomat can be charged with a crime himself. There is a very minor mystery of why he chose not to cook any of the fish caught by the man who invited him to prepare the trout in the first place.
The story has a kind of Agatha Christie feel to it with the crime in the past and the family members fighting for their share of the money left to them in the dead man's will. Similar to "Immune to Murder" there is a recurring theme of a negative clue, so to speak. Much is made of the two hot water bottles that were found empty in Fyfe's bed the morning he died. The nurse insists she left them full, but when the body was discovered one of the brothers found that they were both empty and dry. This is the vanishing clue of the magazine published title. This puzzle of the empty hot water bottles is tied to the purchase of some mango flavored ice cream, if you can believe that, making it even more like a Christie story.
Continuing another coincidental pattern in my reading this year the murder method is yet another instance of a bizarre way to kill someone. It tends to crop up in Golden Age novels more often than I would've expected. This instance makes the fifth use of this particular substance as a means to do in someone. Stout's variation is utterly fantastic, hugely risky and probably not very fatal. But that doesn't detract from an entertainingly told and cleverly thought out criminal problem for Nero Wolfe.
The best of the lot is the final story in the book "Too Many Detectives". It's the second story in which Wolfe is out of his element and the safety of his brownstone on 35th Street. This time he and Archie have traveled to Albany where they and several other private detectives are required to give testimony in a hearing on illegal wiretapping practices among licensed private detective agencies in New York state. We learn that in 1956 there were 590 licensed PIs in New York, and 423 of them were in New York City. That's not counting the employees who at the time required no license.
Among the PIs being questioned is Dol Bonner who appeared way back in 1937 in her own novel Hand in Glove and also teamed up with Tecumseh Fox in Bad for Business (1940). She and her employee Sally Colt keep Archie's wavering eye very busy as he sums them up both as professional colleagues and potential dating material. When Sally shows a taste for alcohol she loses points with him. I didn't remember that he never drank booze in the novels unless this is something that develops in the later books.
This story is funnier, more involved, has a lively cast of unusual characters, and has the most genuine detective work out of all three stories. The mystery of a murdered con man who under a variety of aliases hired each of the five detectives to perform some spying and eavesdropping on phone calls is not just confined to who and why he was killed. They must discover his real identity and his motivation for the elaborate trickery employed in the wiretapping jobs. Each of the other detectives seems to have some secret reason for not admitting to being taken in by the con artist. And when the Albany D.A. serves a warrant for Wolfe's arrest the story kicks into high gear.
The Wolfe Pack website to hunt for illustrations for this post I found a rating sheet for all 39 novellas created by Rex Stout fan Robert Schneider. Interestingly, my assessment of these three stories matched exactly his ratings. Schneider ranked "Too Many Detectives" the highest with an A-. It comes in at #5 out of all 39 novellas -- in the Top Ten, no less. "A Window for Death" which he compared to a Ross Macdonald novel (I can see that) earns a B+ and ranks 16/39 while the trout cooking story was ignominiously ranked at #32 getting slapped with a D for "dearth of detection". I'd say D for dull. Unless you like reading about fishing, descriptions of Archie's salivating over the two attractive women, and some arcane tidbits about New York State law the story is pretty lousy as a mystery.
Should you come across a copy -- and there hundreds of copies out there --of this book I'd very much recommend the other two novellas. I had such a fun time with Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin and the rest of the gang this time around that I'll be digging up some more Rex Stout in this book museum of a home. I'm very much interested in these novellas now as they seem to be quite varied and show Stout's unusual experimenting with plotting and detective fiction gimmickry.