"Invitation to Murder" was originally published as "Will to Murder". The first title is uttered by Herman Lewent as part of his introductory dialogue. Lewent is both client and victim in the story. As the second (original) title may suggest to a wily Wolfe reader the novella is about a large inheritance, the money and estate that Lewent feels he's been cheated out of. He seeks out Archie and Wolfe to help him find out what happened to his share of his father's estate which was inherited by his sister. She died suspiciously of ptomaine poisoning after eating a plateful of artichoke appetizers at a party and Lewent thinks that someone in her husband's household killed her. Reluctantly, Wolfe takes on the case and Archie is sent to the home of Theodore Huck, the wheelchair bound husband, in a somewhat undercover capacity to smoke out the killer...if in fact there is one. When Lewent dies Archie is tasked with finding a real murderer. He and Wolfe try to prove that Lewent was murdered because of his knowledge of Mrs. Huck's suspicious and conveniently timed death.
The suspect list is small in this story and therefore the sniffing out of the culprit is not at all difficult. Besides the invalid husband who is the most fleshed out of the characters, there is his nephew Paul Thayre, an aspiring composer of "modern music" and Huck's three female employees: a housekeeper, a secretary, and a nurse. None of these women is really s given any full treatment as a character. They're sort of ciphers. Archie of course is attracted to a few of them, notably Mrs. O'Shea, the buxom, hip swinging, widowed housekeeper who he thinks is Huck's secret paramour. But when Lewent's murder by bludgeoning is examined closely there really can be only one possible killer. The only surprise here is how the body was moved from the actual murder site to where Archie literally stumbled over it. Not much of a mystery tale and though Wolfe solves it with his usually aplomb anyone could figure out this one.
A better mystery and better tale is "The Zero Clue" which resembles the work of Ellery Queen. It's no wonder that the story was reprinted four times in EQMM between 1963 and 1976. The Wolfe novella includes a rather puzzling dying clue, a plot device practically invented by the Queen writing team.
This is also one of the few times we learn that Wolfe had a rival in the private detective business, though this detective is of a most unusual sort. Leo Heller is what one might call a probability detective. As an ex-professor of mathematics Heller made a name for himself by using the laws of probability in determining the outcomes of anything from a horse race to a political election. He then turned to becoming a private detective of sorts using his various calculations and formulae in helping people with everything from completing business deals to locating missing persons. Archie says the rumor has it Heller was so successful that he was pulling a six figure income. Heller crossed paths with Wolfe in one case where they had the same client but Wolfe was fired when the client thought he was moving too slowly. Heller then delivered for the client but he used much of the data and info gathered by Wolfe's operatives which led to Wolfe's negative opinion of Heller as a man of ethics in the private detective world.
|The dying clue in "The Zero Clue"|
The story is about the drugging of four baseball players on the New York Giants and the murder of a fifth player suspected of drugging them. The large cast of characters includes a showgirl wife who is the object of many a player's roving eyes and who supplies the story with a subplot that goes on a bit too long. The real mystery is so tied up with the game of baseball that for me it didn't mean much. The mystery was well told but sports fans would appreciate it a lot more than someone like me who doesn't give a damn about professional athletics. For me the biggest mystery was the decision of the Viking editors to change the verb in the original title "This Will Kill You" to a negative.
Overall, a good collection with the second and third novellas the best of the trio. But for me "The Zero Clue" is absolutely top notch. It also appears to be the unanimous appraisal for that novella. "The Zero Clue" turns up in the top five (some rank it as #2) of all 39 novellas in numerous "Best of Nero Wolfe" lists all over the internet and in several reference books.